ATLANTA — Dabo Swinney said there were more questions about his Clemson team that entered the Georgia Dome on Saturday night than there were a year ago, when Clemson was coming off a six-win season. There were questions about a defense which was last seen allowing nine touchdowns in Miami. There were questions about a green offensive front.
There were never any questions about the team’s skill players.
And it was the Clemson skill players that made the difference Saturday in a 26-19 victory over Auburn, in the rubber match of a three-game series between the programs.
Clemson running back Andre Ellington, perhaps as healthy has he has been since midway through the 2010 season, rushed 27 times for a career-best 231 yards, including several highlight runs where he demonstrated remarkable balance. Ellington kept Clemson out of dangerous third-and-long situations against a talented Auburn defensive front.
Receiver DeAndre Hopkins proved Clemson might have two No. 1 receivers when Sammy Watkins returns from his suspension. Hopkins caught a program-record 13 balls for 119 yards Saturday appearing more explosive and stronger than he was a year ago, but possessing the same great hands as he plucked the four-yard, go-ahead touchdown over a helpless Auburn defensive back for the go-ahead score.
But the Clemson offensive skill player that made the greatest transition was quarterback Tajh Boyd.
The Boyd that arrived in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night was a changed man.
There were no more head-scratching decisions that had plagued Clemson in the second half of the season. He committed one turnover but it was a slightly inaccurate bobbled pass, not a poor decision.
The Boyd that the nation saw was quicker and trimmer, having shaved 20 pounds and perhaps two-tenths of a second from his 40-time. He used that improved speed and decision making to pick up two critical first downs with runs of 27 and 10 yards to extend a drive he capped with the four-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins, to put Clemson ahead for good in a game that had mostly bogged down in the red zone and had turned into a field goal exhibition.
The score was tied at 16 entering the fourth quarter.
On third-and-five during Clemson’s next drive, Boyd used his new-found nimble feet to avoid pressure and pick up a critical first down. Ellington responded with a long run inside the Auburn 10 and Catanzaro kicked a field goal to put Clemson up 26-19 with 1:24 to play.
Boyd also completed 24 of 25 passes for 208 yards.
The scramble, the scoring drive, was evidence of maturation by its quarterback entering his second year in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ system. It was evidence that Boyd could be effective without Watkins, who had 155 receiving yards in the win over Auburn last season.
And the performance – combined with a stellar showing of red-zone defense by Brent Venable’s unit – allowed Clemson to move on from the bitter taste of its last national showcase performance, a blowout loss to West Virginia.
The win allows Clemson to move ahead with the promise of a team loaded in skill players, big plays and big possibilities.