By Ed McGranahan
When Clemson crashed Saturday night in Tallahassee it wasn’t pretty, yet you couldn’t keep from looking.
Dabo Swinney prefers his team plays at warp speed. It isn’t his character to ease off the pedal. So when the game began to spiral out of control in the third quarter Saturday night, Swinney couldn’t pump the brakes and steer out of trouble.
Florida State was every bit two touchdowns better than Clemson, probably more were it not for a late touchdown pass that kept the Seminoles from covering the Vegas spread.
Even after an encouraging first half in which Clemson scored with its first two possessions to lead 21-14 at the break and 10-point surge to open the second half, Florida State never seemed to be disconnected.
Florida State outgained Clemson 311-253 and punted only once in the first half but Dustin Hopkins, who beat Clemson here two years ago with a 55-yarder field goal as time expired, missed from 37 and 44 yards.
Jimbo Fisher began pushing all the right buttons during the third quarter, taking the score from 14-28 to 49-31 in four consecutive possessions as quarterback EJ Manuel thrust himself firmly into the Heisman conversation with a career performance.
While this game was about seductive numbers harvested in games with Murray, Savannah and Wake, and Florida State proved it wasn’t teasing. No team in the top 10 was more impressive this weekend, and Clemson was left wondering if a) it yet belonged in the company of the nation’s elite this season, and b) what it’s going to take to close the gap.
If nothing else, the game satisfied suspicion that Clemson needs extensive work defensively, and it raised a couple of questions about some aspects of the special teams.
FSU’s 667 yards were far more than any game a year ago that resulted in the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, including the 589 rung up by West Virginia in the bowl game. On third down the Seminoles were 8 of 13. They averaged 8.9 yards per play offensive snap, far in arrears of any game a year ago.
Manuel completed 27 of 35 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 102 as the Seminoles came at Clemson in waves. Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. each ran for two touchdowns. Thompson had 103 rushing yards and caught 8 passes for 79.
Fisher’s teams still tend to be imprecise and undisciplined — two turnovers to Clemson’s one and 81 yards on 11 penalties.
FSU’s sheer talent was more than adequate.
Meanwhile, after leading by two touchdowns in the third quarter, Clemson struggled to find a current in the second half. Florida State’s defense, which led the nation in five telling statistical categories, limited Clemson to 104 yards until the final minutes of the second half.
Unlike the Orange Bowl in which the offense was as culpable as the defense in lighting the fuse, quarterback Tajh Boyd never lost his composure. He finished 20 of 36 for 237 yards and three touchdowns and was adroit at eluding pressure until FSU began throwing caution to the wind.
After the 60-yard touchdown pass to Nuke Hopkins opening the game, Boyd’s wide receivers disappeared. Sammy Watkins was deployed in several capacities, even throwing a couple of passes, but he never asserted his presence on the game. Even after Florida State was willing to kick to him, Watkins returned three for 48 yards.
On the other hand, Florida State returned five kicks for 185 yards, three punts for 30.
“Obviously we took a little bit of a step back tonight,” Swinney said. “Playing a team like that, especially at their place, you can’t do certain things to help them.
“We couldn’t stop the run,” he said. “We just didn’t play four quarters.”
As Swinney said, the winner controls the Atlantic Division until further notice. Loftier ambitions require assistance.
Visits to Boston College have been problematic in one manner or another for Clemson. BC always seems to leave marks. With Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech following, the trip to Chestnut Hill this week requires a mental reset. Georgia Tech will be Brent Venables next great challenge as Clemson defensive coordinator, and Virginia Tech won’t soon forget last season.
“There is a lot of football left,” Swinney said. “Certainly we’ve got a lot of improving to do.
“As we tell our guys, the season starts tomorrow,” he said. “We are still in the car. We just don’t have our hands on the steering wheel anymore.”