CLEMSON – It didn’t matter how great an impression Clemson cornerback Darius Robinson played as a magnet to Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Who: No. 3 Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) at Maryland (5-2, 1-2)
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: College Park, Md.
TV: ESPN, or ABC/ESPN2
As Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables would later dictate, Robinson couldn’t have covered Benjamin any better despite surrendering six inches and 60 pounds in size.
The old saying goes, a perfect pass cannot be defended. Nor can an unbelievable catch.
Florida State freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, superbly in tune with his cast of outstanding playmakers, could not and would not be stopped in the No. 5-ranked Seminoles 51-14 scrubbing Saturday night of their host, No. 3 Clemson, thus proving the hype in Winston and FSU has not been overstated.
Clemson coaches and players, however, would offer little more than golf claps to their vanquisher. To them, it’s always about how Clemson plays, and the stunned Tigers (6-1, 4-1 ACC) wouldn’t try to argue otherwise with the narrative: they stunk.
“As good as they are, we didn’t do anything to compete on that field,” quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “We actually didn’t play any type of caliber that we’re capable of, and that’s the most disappointing part, because that’s just not us. We didn’t display the type of players we have, and we didn’t display what type of team we have.
“They’re good, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not (a 37)-point difference.”
It sure was in primetime, capping another College GameDay on campus in no way Clemson envisioned. The Seminoles (6-0, 4-0) seized control of the ACC Atlantic Division, which they will win by going no worse than 3-1 in their remaining league games, and thus the Tigers’ national title hopes have likely vanished as well.
All the factors Clemson preaches on its path to victory were betrayed at the worst possible time.
Turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles), timely stops (FSU went 8-for-12 against the nation’s stingiest third-down defense) and big plays (seven FSU gains of 20-plus yards, including 94 and 72; Clemson’s longest pickup was 18 yards), they all contributed to the Tigers’ worst nightmare.
“We know we’re better than how we played tonight, but nobody cares about that,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “All you can do is tip your hat tonight to Florida State, take your medicine, learn from it and get better. We got our butts handed to us, and so we’ve got to respond.”
With no margin for error, the third-ranked Tigers committed far too many of them allowing FSU to produce the most points a visitor’s ever scored in Death Valley, stunning the partisan crowd of 83,428 at Memorial Stadium.
“Defeat always is (humbling,)” Venables said. “The discouraging part is we didn’t play and coach like we’re capable of. The humbling part is they were the aggressor from the onset, and we never could get control of the game and get in any kind of flow. They made all the plays tonight.”
On what he’d dreamed would be a signature night of his college career, Boyd stumbled into a nightmare performance. He threw wildly all night long, misfiring to his receivers on various occasions and making uncharacteristically careless throws into multiple coverage.
Pulled midway through the fourth quarter, Boyd was wearing a right boot in postgame interviews to support his ankle, which was taped up in the second quarter.
“It’s sprained right now. It’ll be fine,” Boyd said. “I’ll get some treatment on it tomorrow.”
Boyd completed just 17 of 37 attempts for 156 yards with two picks; even his 3-yard touchdown throw was off the mark, causing Sammy Watkins to contort his body backwards to bobble and snag the ball. Boyd’s passer rating of 79.5 was his worst since his sophomore year, when Virginia Tech and South Carolina humbled the first-year starter.
Much more is expected of Boyd now, who was outclassed in every manner by his precocious counterpart.
Jameis Winston said Wednesday he seriously didn’t know Florida State’s recent rash of defeat on visits to Clemson.
Winston played Saturday night like he didn’t care.
The kid who claimed to reporters he had no idea the Seminoles had lost five straight games at Clemson shattered that drought with the biggest performance of his young career, turning in a final line of 22-for-34 for 444 yards, four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and an interception.
“He was a good player. For him to be a freshman, he had great poise,” Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford said. “He’s a hard player to bring down when you try to tackle him. Tough, tough kid, man. I feel like his future is real bright.”
Winston’s skill players helped a ton: receiver Rashad Greene exploded for eight catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns, 6-5 deep threat Kelvin Benjamin shook off Darius Robinson for a scoring catch 82 seconds into the game, and tight end Nick O’Leary recorded a 94-yard non-scoring reception on one play, while blowing up safety Travis Blanks to punctuate a run after another catch.
“Tonight they were a better team. They beat us. They played well on offense and defense,” Watkins said. “They’ve got a lot of playmakers just as we do. I think we kind of hurt ourselves in the first half, and they executed off our mistakes.”
Plus, FSU’s defensive leader Lamarcus Joyner talked the talk in the summer, and walked the walk in primetime. He forced two first-half fumbles (one by Boyd which Mario Edwards returned for a touchdown, and one by tight end Stanton Seckinger on the first play from scrimmage) and picked off Boyd, responsible for three of Clemson’s four turnovers.
Turnovers. Clemson had only committed six all season, but produced four Saturday night and the Seminoles capitalized for 24 points; the Tigers hadn’t allowed a single point off a turnover in their first six games.
“When you start the game with a first down and a fumble, you lose the momentum pretty quick,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “Then we come back a series later and have a busted play, lay the ball on the ground, and give them another seven points. You can’t give a team of that caliber free gimmes.”
Third-down defense. Since 2012, Clemson’s opponents in 17 victories have only converted 27 percent of third-down tries. But in three defeats (twice to FSU, and once to South Carolina), the Seminoles and Gamecocks are successful 59 percent of the time, including 8-for-12 Saturday night.
“We just couldn’t get off the field. We were tops in the country in third-down defense, but when it counted, we couldn’t get the job done. We’re going to learn from it.”
Those hallmarks of head coach Dabo Swinney’s program were nowhere to be found, and it resulted in Clemson nearly matching its worst home loss in its football history.
Backup quarterback Cole Stoudt’s 2-yard keeper with 13 seconds left kept the Tigers from its second 44-point defeat at Memorial Stadium. The circumstances back in 1970 were much different: Auburn, a 44-0 winner, was No. 9 in the country, while Clemson was unranked and finished 3-8.
This lopsided loss was far more unacceptable, since Clemson risks dropping out of the top ten.
“They came away with the win. Honestly, Clemson beat ourselves, really,” tailback Roderick McDowell said. “I’m not going to say Florida State is bad; Florida State’s a good team, they’re coached well offense and defense. The fact is we beat ourselves, we put our defense in some bad predicaments, and our offense should have executed when we had the plays.”
Excepting games against South Carolina, this snapped a 20-game home winning streak for Clemson.
“We do have a lot to play for. Obviously, the national title implications are kind of out the door. We’ll see what happens,” Boyd said. “But it’s disappointing for us. We can’t do anything about it anymore.”
Clemson now hits the road the next two weekends, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Maryland (5-2, 1-2) and then Nov. 2 at Virginia.
“Can’t let a loss define your season. We coach for the season, not for one game,” Swinney said. “If this were the end of the year, I’d obviously be really, really disappointed. But good news for us, we get to play again next week, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure we play better.”