By Will Vandervort.
As it turns out Clemson discovered Deshaun Watson did tear his ACL, but it did not keep him from playing against archrival South Carolina.
Even with a torn left knee, the freshman quarterback threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns, while running for two more in No. 21 Clemson’s 35-17 victory over South Carolina on Saturday.
“I wasn’t really in a lot of pain. I just could not move it that much,” Watson said after snapping the Gamecocks’ five-game winning streak in the series.
Watson went out of the game two times. On the Tigers’ opening drive, after Clemson moved the football from its own three to the South Carolina 26, but following an incomplete pass to Germone Hopper, he took himself out of the game.
That drive ended with a missed field goal.
Leading 21-7 with just under three minutes to play in the first half, the Gainesville, Ga., native left the game again when the Tigers moved the football to the USC 49. Again, he took himself out of the game, this time after running back Wayne Gallman ran off left guard for three yards.
That drive ended when backup Cole Stoudt threw an interception two plays later.
“My knee locked up on me. I was not used to the brace,” Watson said. “It was real tight on me. That’s how the brace is, but at the moment it locked up so I had to come out.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said the brace was cutting off the circulation in Watson’s café so they took him into the locker room just before the end of the first half, took the brace off and readjusted everything.
Watson returned in the third quarter and did not leave the game again. He led the Tigers two more touchdowns after that, including running for a one-yard score in the fourth-quarter that sealed the victory.
“Deshaun Watson, he is a mental and genic freak. That’s all I can say,” Swinney said. “There is no other way I can say it to be honest with you.”
Swinney said they thought Watson tore his ACL in the Georgia Tech game, but the MRI came back that it was an LCL—the same injury he suffered in high school—and he returned to limited workouts the week of the Georgia State game. But that Thursday prior to the game, he fell down in practice while running a passing drill through cones.
That Friday they did another MRI and discovered he tore his ACL this time.
“This kid just played this whole game with a torn ACL,” Swinney said. “And when he shot off and ran for that touchdown that was just unbelievable. The only issue he had today was that his brace was so tight it was making his calf go to sleep.”
Watson did not actually score a touchdown on the play Swinney described, but it was a gutty effort nonetheless. From the South Carolina 10, he ran nine yards on a scramble that put the ball at the one and he scored on the next play – his first of his two rushing touchdowns. That gave the Tigers a 21-7 lead with 4:55 to play in the second quarter.
“This guy is special, he really is,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “He is a winner and I think the future is so bright for that young man. Obviously, we are a different team when he is in there. He is calm and he is understanding, and that is just what he does.”
Watson is not the first Clemson quarterback to play with a torn ACL. Tajh Boyd played with a torn ACL his senior year of high school and led his team to a state championship. Former Tiger quarterback Mike Epply played the entire 1983 season with a torn ACL.
Swinney said Watson has already told him he wants to play in the Tigers’ bowl game and he will have surgery soon after. Swinney said he should be back in time for summer workouts.
But Saturday was about beating the Gamecocks and ending the five-game losing streak to their rivals. And with his 14 of 19 passing, Watson was one of the main reasons as to why.
“He was great. I will tell you, I’m amazed,” Swinney said. “I watched him all week in practice and I really could not believe what I was seeing. It was like, ‘Hey, let’s go!
“The confidence he brings to everybody else is special. He makes everybody else better.”
And he did it with a torn ACL.