Kobe Pace was supposed to emerge as “the guy” in Clemson’s backfield.
Phil Mafah was supposed to redshirt.
Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned, but for Clemson (3-2, 2-1 ACC), its rushing attack couldn’t have picked a better week to break out. And, it did so during Clemson’s 19-13 win over Boston College Saturday night in The Valley.
Despite a rough start to Saturday night’s game, Pace bounced back to record a career-high 125 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown.
On Clemson’s second offensive possession, Pace burst through an open lane on the right side and hit his head on the goalpost on his 59-yard touchdown run, which was the longest run of his young career and the Tigers’ longest play from scrimmage on the season.
He also added 41 receiving yards on two receptions and 44 return yards on two kickoff returns. Pace’s 210 all-purpose yards represented Clemson’s first 200-yard all-purpose performance since Travis Etienne did so against Boston College in 2020.
“I thought he did a good job,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said postgame. “Really proud of him and how he responded because he had the false start penalty (on the first drive) and obviously Coach (Swinney) was coaching him very hard. He comes back and he puts together a really, really good game. Caught the ball on the perimeter well for us. He just looked like the guy that we all saw coming out of spring ball, just looked confident.”
The Tigers have been waiting for that version of Pace to emerge. It took Will Shipley being sidelined with a lower-body injury and Lyn-J Dixon entering the transfer portal, but Pace finally arrived when Clemson needed him the most.
He had a critical false start penalty and was stuffed on Fourth-and-1, but he didn’t allow it to define his night. Pace was screamed at by Swinney on the sideline after his mental mistake, but he didn’t sulk. He put his head down and went to work.
“What you saw, what we all knew was there that we hadn’t seen up until this game, was all those yards after contact,” Elliott added. “He’s a big guy that can put his pads down and he can run through tackles. So, I’m proud of him for that. Hopefully, this is just encouragement to him and some motivation to keep pushing forward. We’re gonna need him to lead us down the stretch until Shipley gets back.”
As for Mafah, the different element he brings to Clemson’s running back room was evident the first time he touched the ball Saturday. Not only is he a bruiser, but he has a very unique skill set for his size.
Clemson didn’t want to play Mafah in more than four games this season, which would have allowed him to redshirt. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Tigers have had to change their approach and it left people wondering why he wasn’t in the mix, to begin with.
“Phil Mafah, hey I’ve been waiting to see him play all year,” Clemson starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “I know they were gonna redshirt him, but we had some injuries. I told Phil this week, man, we go to bible study together, me and Phil. We talked about God’s plan. God has a plan for all of us. He’s got to be able to stay the course of God’s plan. You never know and you have to worry about God’s timing. You always want to be on your time, but there’s only one time, and that is God’s time.
“Tonight, Phil got lucky. Man, God told him he’s gonna be ready to play tonight and gave him time to shine. Phil did just that…I’m so happy for my man Phil, he’s a dawg. Unbelievable for him.”
In Mafah’s collegiate debut, the true freshman running back carried the ball seven times for 58 yards.
Pace and Mafah accounted for 183 of Clemson’s 438 total yards Saturday. Coming into Saturday’s game, the Tigers had averaged 126.2 rushing yards per game, but those stats were heavily influenced by the team’s 46-point win over S.C. State. Clemson’s rushing attack had been virtually non-existent against FBS opponents coming into Saturday’s contest.
If Clemson was going to knock off Boston College, it was going to need its run game to show up. Clemson’s rushing attack did more than just that, aiding the Tigers to their most important win of the season to date.
As the Tigers climb their back into the conversation, they’ll need the 1-2 punch of Pace and Mafah to pick up where they left off Saturday going forward.