By Will Vandervort
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The 10th-ranked Clemson offense may have had its moments against fourth-ranked Florida State’s vaunted defense Saturday night. But, the Seminoles offense had a whole lot more.
Despite trailing by 14 and 10 points in the third quarter, Florida State whipped away both deficits before the end of the 15-minute session and by the start of the fourth quarter had the game in full control in a 49-37 victory in Tallahassee, Fla.
“One thing I’ll say is — obviously Florida State’s got a real good football team,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Playing a team like that, especially at their place, you can’t do certain things to help them. We helped them a little bit in a couple of areas.”
Clemson helped by giving back the momentum. After the Tigers scored on a trick-play in which wide receiver Sammy Watkins hit Andre Ellington with a 52-yard pass down the right sideline for a 28-14 lead, the Seminoles went on a 35-3 run. During the deceive-scoring spree, Florida State got plays of 64, 90, 29 yards and 27 yards.
The Seminoles (4-0, 2-0 ACC) racked up 667 yards offense, while quarterback E.J. Manuel threw for a career-high 380 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 102 more. Manuel completed 27-of-35 passes with two scores.
“We will not make any excuses whatsoever,” Swinney said. “We got our butts handed to us.”
And it started with a very familiar play. The 64-yard pass play was something Clemson saw in last year’s Orange Bowl, which resulted in three touchdowns from West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. This time, it started the FSU rally as Kelvin Benjamin took the little flip from quarterback E.J. Manuel and then turned it up the field to the Tigers’ 11. Three plays later Chris Thompson scored from nine yards out on an option play to the left.
Clemson (3-1, 0-1 ACC) was able to answer the Thompson touchdown with a 50-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro to extend the lead to 31-21 with 7:07 to play in the third quarter, but freshman Bradley Pinion kicked off instead of senior Spencer Benton. The kick fell short of the goal line and Lamarcus Joyner returned it 90 yards to the Clemson 10.
Swinney later said Pinion was put in because Benton was not getting enough on his kicks in the first half.
“The kickoff return was huge,” he said. “It was such a huge momentum swing in the game. It kind of lit a fire for them over there.”
FSU needed two plays to take advantage of the kickoff return as Manuel threw a 9-yard pass to Shane Greene. From there, the Florida State defense took over, forcing three straight three-and-outs and one turnover, while the offense rolled over the Tigers’ defense.
“We got in a situation where we started pressing, and that’s what we have to learn from,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said.
The Seminoles got a 29-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to Rodney Smith to take the lead for good, 35-31. They then got touchdowns of five yards from James Wilder and 27 from Chris Thompson to put the game away.
Thompson rushed for 103 yards and had two touchdowns.
At one point in the second half, Boyd had zero yards passing. Tight end Brandon Ford caught a 40-yard pass with 5:41 to play in the game to finally break the drought and give Clemson its first, first down since Catanzaro’s 50-yard field goal.
Boyd, who was 20-of-36 for 237 yards and had three touchdowns, ultimately capped the drive by completing a 3-yard touchdown to Ford on a fourth-and-goal with 2:11 to play.
“A lot of credit goes to Florida State,” Swinney said. “They played well, made some big plays. And again, they were able to run the football and have some key momentum opportunities that they took advantage of.”
Clemson took a 21-14 lead into the break after Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a 37-yard field as time expired in the first half.
Clemson got a 60-yard Boyd to DeAndre Hopkins touchdown pass 1:26 into the game to take a 7-0 lead. Hopkins spilt the safety and the corner on the play and easily scored. It was the longest pass play of Hopkins career.
FSU quickly answered, though, taking the ball on their first possession and driving 85 yards on six plays to tie the game. Lonnie Pryor rumbled in from 13 yards out with 10:54 left in the first quarter.
The Tigers answered the FSU score with one of their own as Boyd directed a 10-play, 79-yard drive. Ellington, who rushed for 55 and had 87 receiving yards, capped off the march with a 6-yard plunge with 3:49 to play in the first quarter to give Clemson a 14-7 advantage.
“We did a lot of good things,” Swinney said.
The Seminoles again tied the game, this time in the second quarter as Wilder ran in from five yards out with 14:35 to play in the first quarter.
Greene gave Clemson the first break of the night when he muffed a Benton punt, which the Tigers recovered at the 31-yard line. Four plays later, Boyd threw his second touchdown of the night, a 17-yard strike to Ford, who caught the ball at the 2-yard line and walked into the end zone.
“We won the first half and played fairly solid in the third quarter,” Swinney said. “It just kind of got away from us there in the fourth quarter. Again, just a couple of momentum plays that really hurt us.”
Catanzaro made a 50-yard field goal to give Clemson a 31-21 lead with 7:07 to play in the third. The kick was his 15th straight dating back to last year, which set a Clemson record. After that, it was all Florida State.