CLEMSON — If ever Clemson had a chance to show the national television audience — not to mention a certain rival about 100 miles down the road — that it’s still got it, this was the time.
Who: The Citadel (4-6, 4-4 Southern) at No. 8 Clemson (9-1, 7-1 ACC)
When: Nov. 23, 12 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Tajh Boyd established another landmark record with Sammy Watkins’ help, Martavis Bryant and Chandler Catanzaro enjoyed their Thursday night spotlight again, and the defense swarmed to make a statement as the eighth-ranked Tigers took out any last frustrations they had on Georgia Tech in Thursday’s 55-31 pouncing at Memorial Stadium, rewarding 75,234 who paid to brave the cold in Clemson’s ACC season finale.
Nearly a month after getting embarrassed on its own field by Florida State, the Tigers (9-1, 7-1 ACC) have three straight wins by 13, 49 and 24 points, and have sewn up a second consecutive seven-win season in league play. Clemson is also on the doorstep of its third 10-win overall campaign, on the heels of no such seasons in the previous 20 years.
“We’re probably playing our best football right now,” head coach Dabo Swinney said, “which is what we need to do in the month of November.”
About the only breathless instance came for 90 seconds at the end of the third quarter, when Boyd took a shot to his left (non-throwing) shoulder finishing off a scramble. Every moment Boyd laid down on the turf being attended to by Swinney and team trainers, Death Valley was deathly silent.
Boyd did jog off on his own power and retreated to the locker room for about six or seven minutes.
“It’s one of those things where it sounded a lot worse than it actually was,” Boyd said postgame. “A guy fell on me, all of his weight kind of fell on my body. I just felt like this nasty crack and (heard) a crunching noise. Fortunately, it was nothing. It wasn’t a break; it was just a bruise.
“I’m blessed in this situation. I definitely in my mind was like, my career just ended at Clemson. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t.”
He then returned to the sideline and threw some pitch-and-catch with walk-on Matt Porter; but he did not re-enter the game, letting backup Cole Stoudt take over the final 15 minutes.
“Yeah, I just wanted to show coach that I was healthy,” Boyd said. “If it was a dire situation, I could have come back out, but it wasn’t necessary tonight.”
No, it wasn’t, thanks to his early work. He completed 20-of-26 passes for 340 yards and four scores, including a pair to his favorite target Watkins (five catches, 104 yards), who had his seventh 100-yard game of the year and 14th of his three-year career.
“To have the national stage again, he was phenomenal,” Swinney said. “Those throws he made were on the money. Man oh man, he throws a heck of a ball.”
This was all about who got the early start, based on both teams’ recent history. The Tigers had 13 points before Georgia Tech (6-4, 5-3) had a first down.
Sure, the Clemson defense once again couldn’t prevent the big play from gashing its overall numbers; Robert Godhigh had rushes of 32 and 65 along with grabs of 33 and 38 yards, tallying 229 yards and two touchdowns on 17 touches (12-126 rushing, 5-103 receiving.)
“There’s probably six, seven, eight plays that you’d like to get back. You can’t,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We just lost some focus and precision. They’re good enough if you’re not precise and exactly where you’re supposed to be, they can hit their head on the goalpost in a hurry.”
Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee also had sporadic success throwing the ball (13-for-23, 165 yards), but in all, the vaunted Jackets’ rushing attack, averaging 311.2 yards per game coming into Thursday, finished with 248 yards on 45 carries.
The Yellow Jackets had three total yards on their first three possessions; by then, the Tigers opened up a double-digit lead, and Georgia Tech never crept closer than 10.
“The first couple of drives were awesome,” senior linebacker Quandon Christian said. “Everyone was doing their jobs and kept getting up and going at them the first couple of plays. We wanted to come out and stop them early and we were able to do that tonight.”
Two of Bryant’s best games previously came on Thursday night (last year at Wake Forest: three catches for 82 yards; Sept. 19 at N.C. State: six catches, 73 yards and two scores.) He was sublime against the Yellow Jackets: five catches for 176 yards and a 76-yard score.
It didn’t end up being incredibly relevant, but Catanzaro got the Tigers off to a nice start in the kicking game. He had two vital field goals against the Wolfpack in Clemson’s first Thursday nighter this year, and he connected from 40 and 51 yards (his first career FG longer than 50 yards) to give the Tigers a 6-0 first-quarter lead.
Christian had eight tackles (three for a loss), while cornerback Bashaud Breeland had five takedowns, two deflected passes and his team-high fourth interception of the year.
The Tigers will get the rest of the weekend off and are back in action Nov. 23 at noon against The Citadel. That game will serve as Senior Day, Military Appreciation Day and a Purple Out.