CLEMSON, S.C. -- It all looked so familiar: Clemson faltering in large part because it could not get out of its own way.
There were bad overthrows to wide-open receivers. A misalignment on Dalvin Cook's 75-yard touchdown run. A successful fake punt was waved off because of a penalty. And then, at the end of the half, a horrible spike on third down cost the Tigers an opportunity to tie the game. Clemson trailed 10-6 -- its first halftime deficit all season.
You don’t have to go back very far to remember a game in which the Tigers so thoroughly beat themselves: one year ago, in Tallahassee, Florida, against these very Seminoles.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made a beeline for quarterback Deshaun Watson at halftime. “We needed to get him dialed in,” Swinney would say later. “You don’t win these games if your best players don’t play well.”
Senior offensive guard Eric Mac Lain was next.
“I told him, ‘Look, man, you’re the best quarterback in the nation,’” Mac Lain said. “You’ve got us at your disposal. Tell us what you want to do and we’ll do it.”
Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott followed.
“We’re going to put it on your shoulders,” Elliott told Watson. “We’re going to win this football game if you’ll just commit to doing your job.”
Florida State was not going to concede anything, not as the three-time defending ACC champion. During the week, Clemson's coaches told the players about the rivalry between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in the 1930s. “We knew if we wanted to win this game that we had to go knock the champion out,” Elliott said. “We prepared them all week, and told them there would be adversity.”
In past years, adversity dealt Clemson the knockout blow. Think back to the losses against Florida State and South Carolina, when turnovers meant the difference between winning and losing. As the new No. 1 team in the nation, Clemson had to prove it was a new and improved version of itself. Watson had to prove he could be the man to erase all those ugly games and set Clemson down a championship path.
So with the game on the line, Watson responded the way Swinney asked him to, keying a 23-13 comeback win. Clemson decided it needed to use Watson more as a rusher because Florida State was clogging the middle of the line and taking away inside running lanes. So Watson ran. And on plays that were not designed for him to run, he ran some more, loosening up a tight Seminoles defense and finding seams up the middle. His ability to run opened up the passing game, most especially a screen game that ended up being the deciding factor.
Clemson called a perfect screen for Deon Cain that ended in a 38-yard touchdown to give Clemson the lead in the third quarter. Florida State tied the game up, but the Tigers had done enough on offense to send the Noles into retreat. On its next scoring drive, Clemson was backed up to its 8-yard line, with the Florida State band blaring in its ears. Watson calmly stepped into the huddle and told his teammates, “This is what we worked for all summer. This is what championships are made of. Championship teams find a way to win.”
The Tigers went down the field with some clutch plays to tight end Jordan Leggett, who ended up with over 100 yards receiving. Though the drive ended in just a field goal, Clemson would never relinquish the lead. Momentum had swung to the Tigers, but so did something else that sent the Seminoles reeling. Clemson became the aggressor, the team that did not beat itself, the team that made the plays that had to be made with resolute conviction.
Florida State had not seen this out of a Clemson team in years.
Watson ended up with 404 yards of total offense, including a career-high 107 yards rushing. Perhaps just as important: Clemson had zero turnovers -- the first time that has happened against Florida State since 2006.
There was one more important component to the win: a Clemson defense that shut down Cook after that long touchdown run to open the game. Cook had 37 yards rushing in the second half, and was absolutely stuffed on a fourth-and-1 play from the Clemson 40 with 6:17 left in the game. The defense held Florida State without a touchdown for the final 59:15.
No. 1 Clemson stood tall in the end, clinching the Atlantic Division and a spot in the ACC championship game. After watching the Tigers rally to win, it can definitively be said this is a different team with a different mentality and a different mindset. Maybe Clemson needed a game like this, to prove to itself it could win when nothing seemed to be going right. In his postgame comments, Swinney alluded to the missed opportunities in a heartbreaking loss to Florida State a year ago.
He was asked why this year was different.
“We didn’t lose to Clemson this year,” he said.
The Tigers haven't lost to anyone else, either.