Skill players shine in Clemsons season-opening win over Auburn
ATLANTA — Dabo Swinney said there were more questions about the Clemson team that entered the Georgia Dome on Saturday night than a year ago, when his team was coming off a six-win season.
There were questions about a defense last seen allowing nine touchdowns in the Orange Bowl. There were questions about Clemson’s young offensive line. There were concerns about the passing game with star receiver Sammy Watkins out of the lineup.
But Clemson’s skill players came up big as the 14th-ranked Tigers beat Auburn, 26-19, in front of a packed Georgia Dome crowd and a national television audience.
Clemson running back Andre Ellington rushed 26 times for a career-high 231 yards, including several highlight runs in which he demonstrated remarkable balance. Ellington kept Clemson out of dangerous third-and-long situations against a talented Auburn defensive front, which the Clemson staff claims is as good as any in the country. Ellington said he is the healthiest he has been since 2010.
“I felt back to my old self before I got my injury two years ago,” Ellington said. “(On the 68-yard run) I don’t think I could have done that last year.”
Receiver DeAndre Hopkins proved Clemson might have two No. 1 receivers when Sammy Watkins returns from his two-game suspension, his punishment for a drug arrest over the summer.
Hopkins caught a Clemson single-season record 13 passes for 119 yards.
“They gave a lot of man coverage. He had to have a good game,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. of Hopkins.
But the Clemson offensive skill player that made the greatest growth was quarterback Tajh Boyd.
The Boyd that arrived in the electrified Georgia Dome on Saturday night was a changed man.
There were no more head-scratching decisions that had plagued Clemson in second half of last season. He committed one turnover but it was a slightly inaccurate pass that was bobbled by the receiver.
Boyd was quicker and trimmer, having shaved 20 pounds. He used the improved speed to pick up two critical first downs with runs of 27 and 10 yards to extend the game-winning drive he capped with a four-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins.
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 Chandler Catanzaro kicked a field goal to put Clemson up 26-19 with 1:24 to play.
Boyd completed 24 of 35 passes for 208 yards.
“Tajh is a veteran quarterback,” Morris said. “That’s exactly what we had to have. Where Tajh got in trouble last year was when things weren’t perfect. You have to have a quarterback who understands that and is able to pull the ball down and make plays with his feet. That’s the thing I’ve been challenging him on. … I was very pleased.”
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 in the Orange Bowl, toward the prospect of greater things to come.