NCF Nation: Tigers-Tigers 090112

Clemson rolls without Sammy Watkins

September, 2, 2012

ATLANTA -- The talk outside the Clemson locker room focused on the absence of one dynamic Sammy Watkins, filling radio talk shows and newspapers, blogs and online reports.

The talk inside the Clemson locker room?

Well, leave it to receivers coach Jeff Scott to draw a little diagram for his players, without X's and O's.

On this diagram: every receiver on the team, with his receptions and receiving yards from 2011.

“It was amazing,” DeAndre Hopkins said. “Like we had Sammy out there. So we knew coming into the game that we were prepared and we could do work with the guys we have.”

The storyline was a convenient and simple one: How would Clemson do without Watkins in the opener against Auburn? But it inconveniently missed a major point.

The Tigers have playmakers in spades on this team. You saw it Saturday night in a 26-19 victory over Auburn in the Georgia Dome, a win that gave the ACC a temporary reprieve on the national credibility front and hopefully closes the chapter on the Meltdown in Miami.

Tajh Boyd ran for a career-high 58 yards -- 38 of them on the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter -- looking much sleeker and faster without the 20 pounds he gained last season.

Andre Ellington, healthy for the first time in two years, ran for a career-high 231 yards on what was a decent Auburn defensive front. Two of those runs sent jaws dropping, as he slithered away from would-be tacklers, busted a few spin moves and kept a balance that ought to make Olympic gymnasts blush.

Hopkins set a single-game school record with 13 receptions for 119 yards and the game-winning touchdown, a play that featured an acrobatic leap in the corner of the end zone with a defender draped on his back.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireClemson quarterback Tajh Boyd strikes a pose after the victory over SEC foe Auburn.
These three players, all known quantities from last season, proved to be even better in Week 1 of a new year. When the Tigers needed them most, trailing 19-16 in the fourth quarter, each responded. Combined, they accounted for 19 of the 21 plays on the final two drives of the game -- drives that resulted in 10 points and the Clemson victory.

“We knew that the guys were going to come to the upperclassmen and look for us when were down in a hole, and we were going to step up and set the tone for the whole season,” Hopkins said. “And we did that.”

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris preached all summer about playing faster, faster, faster this season. You saw the big reason in this game. Clemson, struggling early in the game with its rebuilt offensive line, started to see Auburn get tired.

Not just hands-on-your-hips tired. Players started asking to be taken out of the game in the second quarter. Center Dalton Freeman noticed, and so did the entire Clemson offensive line and offensive staff. Morris went up to Ellington and asked a simple question.

“What do you want to do?”

Ellington went up to his offensive line.

“Do y’all want to pass or do y’all want to run?” he asked.

“They said, ‘Let’s run the ball,'” Ellington recalled. “They felt those guys were getting tired and we could push them around real well, so we did that. Coach kept feeding me the ball, and we had success with it.”

Success to the tune of 320 yards rushing and 87 total plays.

“Our guys could have played all night,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They were strong.”

They were physical, too, and grew up as the game went on. The starting offensive line played every single snap save one, when right tackle Gifford Timothy got hurt at the end of the game.

While the offensive line was blossoming, the defense started playing with more conviction. There were missed assignments, blown tackles and many open running lanes early on. But when the game was on the line, this group came up with some pretty huge stops.

Auburn made it inside the Clemson 30 three times in the second half. Two of those drives made it into the red zone. On each of the three drives, Auburn had to settle for a field goal -- crucial plays that ended up having a direct effect on the score.

Seeing 19 up there surely feels better than the big 7-0 that gnawed at this team -- and this conference -- for eight long months. Seeing this team win without Watkins, well, that was pretty special, too.

“We just have to keep building off it,” Boyd said. “People after the game asked me, ‘Did this do anything for the ACC/SEC?' It has nothing to do with that. This is all about Clemson. We’re doing everything we can for Clemson. I feel like we’ve got a special team in the making. We’ve just got to keep going, keep persevering.”
It was over when: Clemson end Vic Beasley sacked Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier for a loss of 10 yards with about 10 seconds left to go. Auburn was in desperation mode on third-and-8, and the play preserved Clemson’s 26-19 victory and ended any hope of a comeback.

Game ball goes to: Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Sammy who? With super soph Sammy Watkins suspended for the first two games of the season, Hopkins stepped up big-time and tied the school record for single-game receptions with 12 -- and that was with about eight minutes still left in the game. His highlight-reel touchdown catch in the fourth quarter gave Clemson the 23-19 lead. He finished with 13 catches for 119 yards and a touchdown.

Stat of the game: 71 percent. That's how much of Clemson's running game Andre Ellington accounted for. Clemson ran for 320 yards, and running back Ellington finished with 228 of them. Ellington finished with 9.1 yards per carry on 25 carries.

Video: Clemson-Auburn pregame

September, 1, 2012

Andrea Adelson and Mark Schlabach preview the game between Clemson and Auburn in the Georgia Dome.

Clemson up next vs. SEC

September, 1, 2012
ATLANTA -- We all saw what happened to NC State in Game 1 of the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff on Friday night. And it wasn't pretty.

So now, the ACC turns its lonely eyes to you, Clemson, in order to redeem what could be a tough start to the season. NC State coach Tom O'Brien talked this week about the need for the ACC to start winning its national spotlight games, just for the sake of its rep. The Wolfpack, and most specifically its two best players, failed to deliver in a 35-21 loss to Tennessee.

That leaves Clemson -- a team that added to the ACC punchline with its loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. In a little over an hour, the Tigers take on Auburn with plenty on the line. Clemson comes in as the higher ranked team (No. 14) and just needs a win for itself first and foremost to turn the page on last season.

Plenty has been made about Sammy Watkins being suspended for this game, but the Tigers have plenty of playmakers on offense. What I will be focusing on his how new defensive coordinator Brent Venables has handled the rebuild job handed to him in the wake of the Orange Bowl rout.

Clemson has had a tendency to give up chunks of rushing yards, and now it must face a dual-threat quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who has made strides in the passing game during practice. He has a chance to prove it in the game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Frazier has not completed a pass that traveled past the line of scrimmage in seven attempts -- unless you count his two interceptions.

The Tigers also must worry about the always dangerous Philip Lutzenkirchen, who caught seven touchdown passes a year ago. Given what happened in the Orange Bowl, all eyes must be on this defense.

As for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, offensive coordinator Chad Morris anticipates his player being able to take the next step. Boyd has to be more consistent in the red zone. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boyd struggled in the red zone during Clemson’s four losses last season, completing just 2-of-13 passes, including two interceptions. In his 39 red-zone attempts during the Tigers’ 10 wins, Boyd did not throw a pick and had 16 touchdowns.

Video: Clemson's Dabo Swinney

September, 1, 2012

Go all-access with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.