The breakout offensive performance Clemson’s coaches and players have been trying to talk into existence all season finally came to fruition for the Tigers in impressive fashion Saturday.
A unit ranked 82nd or worse nationally in both categories posted season-highs in rushing yards (333) and total offense (543) in Clemson’s runaway victory over No. 10 Wake Forest to close out its home slate at Memorial Stadium. The nation’s 95th-ranked scoring offense also easily reached a season-high in points (48) thanks in large part to one of its most efficient performances in the red zone all season.
Clemson also finished with 25 first downs — the most it’s had against anyone not named South Carolina State or Connecticut — to make seven trips inside Wake Forest’s 20-yard line, tying a season-high. Five of those finished in the end zone for the second-most touchdowns the Tigers have scored from there all season.
Just about all of them came when Clemson needed them to keep the Demon Deacons at a comfortable distance.
“Incredible execution,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Will Shipley’s 1-yard touchdown plunge on fourth down gave the Tigers their first two-score lead midway through the first quarter. After Wake Forest got its first points on a field goal early in the second quarter, the Tigers immediately answered with some trickeration when it got back inside Wake’s 5-yard line. Clemson punched it in from 2 yards out on Shipley’s jump pass to tight end Davis Allen on third-and-goal to push its lead back to two touchdowns.
Once Wake Forest responded after that with its longest touchdown drive of the day (11 plays, 75 yards) to cut the deficit to 17-10 at the break, the Tigers had their lone blunder in the red zone to start the second half. Clemson reached Wake’s 15 with five straight runs on its first possession of the third quarter, most of those gashing the Demon Deacons between the tackles. But offensive coordinator Tony Elliott dialed up a speed option on the next play, and Wake’s Rondell Bothroyd sped in off the edge to get a hand on Uiagaleiei’s pitch to Kobe Pace before recovering the fumble.
“That one was on me,” Elliott said. “The option there, we were just trying to change it up a little bit. Probably should’ve just handed it off and went straight downhill, but we had had some success getting the ball on the perimeter, so that was on me more than D.J.
“I just picked the guys up and said, ‘Hey look, the defense is playing good. We’ll get an opportunity, and when we get an opportunity, let’s go capitalize.’”
Which is exactly what the Tigers did once they got the ball back in the red zone on Wake’s next offensive snap.
Running back Christian Turner returned the favor with a fumble of his own, and Baylon Spector pounced on the loose ball for Clemson to set the offense up at the Demon Deacons’ 20. Three plays later, Pace sprinted 8 yards through the middle of Wake’s defense to again extend Clemson’s lead to two touchdowns at 24-10. When Uiagalelei found Beaux Collins for a 58-yard touchdown on the Tigers’ next possession to make it a 31-13 advantage, Clemson had a new season-high in points against an FBS opponent, surpassing the 30 it scored at Louisville earlier this month.
“You see what happens when you can get in rhythm a little bit,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to play well up front, first of all. But we had a few spark plays. … You need some of that along the way, and we haven’t had enough of that.”
And by the time the Tigers took advantage of another turnover deep in its own territory, they had a lead that buried the Demon Deacons. Wake quarterback Sam Hartman dropped the ball after faking a handoff on the first play of the Demon Deacons’ next possession, and Tyler Davis was on the recovery for the Tigers at Wake’s 20.
Clemson used four straight runs to move to the 2 before Pace again powered his way into the end zone to give the Tigers their largest lead at 38-13 with 3:38 left in the third quarter. Shipley’s 3-yard touchdown run late in the fourth capped a nearly flawless day for the offense in the red zone, where Clemson came away with points on all but one of its trips.
“That’s kind of a sign of growth where we’ve been stopped twice on fourth-and-1 on the goal line this year,” Swinney said. “We didn’t get it in there, so it was good to see us get in there and good to see us make some of those short yards and those dirty yards. It’s not always going to be clean, but a great effort by our backs to finish it out.”