Safety’s interception sealed No. 4 Clemson’s win over FSU
All the momentum had shifted to the Florid State sideline.
After tight end Ryan Izzo caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from quarterback James Blackman to pull the Seminoles within three points, defensive end Brian Burns recovered a Kelly Bryant fumble at the Clemson 40-yard line with 6:46 to play in the game.
The fourth-ranked Tigers’ season lay in the balance. If they wanted to win their third straight ACC Atlantic Division title and keep their ACC Championship and College Football Playoff hopes alive, someone needed to step up and make a play.
Safety Van Smith did just that.
On the very next play following Bryant’s fumble, Smith stepped in front of Blackman’s pass at the Clemson 18-yard line and returned it 38 yards to the FSU 44, setting Clemson up for a game-clinching touchdown in its 31-14 victory Saturday at Death Valley.
“That was a real big play,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Jackson never saw Smith. The junior safety was playing more of a robber position. During Blackman’s pre-snap read, Smith was closer to the line, giving the appearance he was going to stay with Izzo, who was lined up just behind the left tackle.
But as the ball was being snapped, Smith quickly jumped back in coverage and then just read Blackman’s eyes as he was looking for a receiver he thought was open down the middle of the field. Smith baited Blackman and then stepped right in front of the pass for the easy interception.
“He was in the robber position there and he did a great job trying to run away from leverage and he left it out there and he was in terrific position to go get the ball,” Venables said. “I’m proud of him for that. Again, that was a huge play, obviously, in the game.”
No one on was happier to see Smith make the interception than Bryant. The Clemson quarterback said they always know the defense has their back when they make a mistake and once again that was the case late in the fourth quarter.
“It is good to know. This is a team sport,” Bryant said. “Guys lean on each other. I know we put the defense in a bad spot right there, but the defense stepped up and made a play so that was good to see.”
Bryant was one of the first ones to greet Smith when he came off the field following his pick.
“I congratulated him because that was a big play by him,” Bryant said. “That just goes to show the defense that we have.”
Smith did more on Saturday than just make the game’s biggest play. With secondary leaders like Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond over on the sideline nursing injuries, Smith stepped up his game as a leader as well, quarterbacking a relatively young secondary to be in the right spots and to stay engaged no matter what the situation.
“That is what you expect, this being his third year as a player for us,” Venables said. “He was able to keep that backend (straight). He did a great job all week helping guys prepare and being ready for the game and then he played really, really well.”
Smith finished the afternoon with five tackles to go along with his game-saving interception.