It was third down-and-one on Clemson’s opening drive Saturday night when Trevor Lawrence pulled the football on a run-pass-option and threw it to Mr. Reliable, Hunter Renfrow.
However, the senior could not come up with the third down catch and subsequently the Tigers’ offense could not find its rhythm either. Second-ranked Clemson struggled to get off to a good start in its 35-6 victory over Duke at Death Valley.
“We just did not click on a couple of plays early, and that is really all it takes,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “You hit that play on third-and-one, and now everything is rolling. If you do not hit that play on third-and-one and now everybody is like, ‘Okay somebody is trying to make a play on this.’ Some guys just try to force the issue too much, then we get them in here at halftime and settle them down and they play like they are capable.”
At first, Clemson (11-0, 8-0 ACC) did not settle down. There were seven drops. The running game amassed just 17 yards in the first 30 minutes and the Tigers punted seven times, including five three-and-outs.
“We did not start like we wanted to, obviously, but we knew what we had,” Lawrence said. “We knew all the things we wanted to do were out there and we were just missing on a few plays. We just knew we need to come out in the second half and execute better.”
Clemson actually started to execute a little better in the second quarter. Trailing 6-0 early in the second quarter, Lawrence hit wide receiver Justyn Ross for a 41-yard gain to the Duke 2-yard line and then running back Travis Etienne finished the drive on the next play by taking it into the end zone from there.
Lawrence made the score 14-6 later in the quarter when he hit Ross for a 19-yard touchdown with 1:16 to play in the half.
“He was putting the ball where it needed to be,” Elliott said.
The Tigers finally started running the ball the way they need to in the second half. On Clemson’s first possession of the third quarter, they drove 61 yards in five plays, which Etienne capped with a 27-yard touchdown run.
Forty-seven of Clemson’s 61 yards came on the ground.
Etienne and the running game got going again later in the third as the sophomore rumbled over Duke tacklers for a 29-yard touchdown, making the score 28-6 with 4:20 left in the quarter.
“We forced our style of play,” Etienne said. “The coaches just put in the plays and we were able to take advantage of it.”
Etienne finished the game with 81 yards on nine carries. With his second touchdown of the game, he notched his 17th rushing touchdown of the year, tying Clemson’s record for rushing touchdowns in a single season, held jointly by Lester Brown (1978), James Davis (2006) and Wayne Gallman (2016).
The second touchdown was also Etienne’s 18th total touchdown of the season, tying him with Travis Zachery (18 in 2000) and DeAndre Hopkins (18 in 2012) for second-most in a season in school history, trailing only C.J. Spiller’s 21-touchdown season in 2009.
“That is a tremendous honor. That is a great group to be in,” Etienne said. “I just have to give credit to my offensive line.”
Clemson finished the game with 208 rushing yards, 191 in the second half. The Tigers had 459 yards overall.
“We will use this as an opportunity to make sure that we learn from it and understand that as we go forward in the season the room for error is smaller and smaller,” Elliott said. “We can’t count on the defense to bail us out while we are trying to figure it out. We have to come out right out of the gate and establish our rhythm.”