CLEMSON — The opponents will get tougher, the stakes will raise. Yet for everyone wearing orange, on the field and in the stands, it felt like the good ol’ days of 2013.
Very little was routine for the normally powerful Clemson offense in 2014, which made Saturday’s season opener, a routine 49-10 dismantling of middling FCS program Wofford, that much more satisfying.
Of course, a healthy Deshaun Watson makes everything better in Death Valley. In his first start back from ACL reconstructive surgery last winter, Watson began his Heisman hopeful campaign by completing 18-of-22 passes for 194 yards and a couple of touchdowns.
“Knee feels good. Feels strong, and I’m confident with it,” Watson said. “It’s a long season, and we’re going to be way better in December than we were today.”
Where have you gone, Chad Morris? The man went to Texas, but his tempo and video game numbers stayed in Clemson. New offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott insist the No. 12-ranked Tigers (1-0) operate at breakneck speed, and did not deter from that plan during an August fall camp typically doused in 90-degree humid days.
The early returns: 40 snaps, 321 yards and 35 points for Watson and the first-team offense, scoring touchdowns on all five drives which lasted an average of 2 minutes, 24 seconds. That means Clemson averaged a supersonic 18 seconds per play with Watson in the shotgun.
“It was good to be able to just call the system. That’s easy for a playcaller, and we want to stay there,” Elliott said. “We had 51 plays at the half; that’s pretty good tempo. They were still getting the call when we’re ready to snap it, so that’s an indicator of good tempo.”
Tailbacks Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye each ran in a pair of touchdowns; Mike Williams, who was hospitalized with a neck injury suffered on his touchdown, and Artavis Scott each caught scoring passes from Watson.
“There’s no limit to how fast we can go,” Gallman said.
As for Clemson’s defense, seeking an effective encore from 2014’s top-ranked total defense in the country, the Tigers snuffed out the triple option completely for almost the entire first half. After six three-and-outs, Wofford (0-1) got it together, scoring a touchdown on the final play of the first half and adding a field goal to start the second half.
“We were hunting and pecking for plays. We didn’t really have a whole lot of continuity,” Wofford coach Mike Ayers said. “Clemson did a nice job on the defensive front, which created problems for us. Hats off to those guys.”
Clemson will have to wait until bigger, stronger offenses to fully prove it, but the new front seven replacing NFL draft picks looks to be in gear. Wofford — the FCS’ No. 3-rated rushing offense last year — averaged a mere 123 yards on 45 carries.
“Today was a good start for our defense. People questioned our front four; that’s why nobody knew who was out there,” sophomore defensive tackle Scott Pagano said. “I think we really showed them what we can do. We’re going to keep building off that momentum.”
Safety T.J. Green led the Tigers 10 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss.
The Tigers played a whopping 13 true freshmen Saturday in their first fall on a college campus. Several played significant roles; Mitch Hyatt was the Tigers’ first true freshman to start at offensive tackle in 71 years, while receivers Ray-Ray McCloud (eight catches, 80 yards) and Deon Cain (three catches, 36 yards), tight end Garrett Williams and defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Albert Huggins and Austin Bryant logged serious time as well.
“It was a real good experience to get out there and run around a little bit,” Wilkins said. “There’s a different speed of the game than high school — guys are stronger and faster — so it was good to get my feet wet, for sure.”
The Tigers’ ball security left something to be desired; backup quarterback Nick Schuessler and fourth-string punt returner Hunter Renfrow each lost fumbles.
But otherwise, it was a comprehensive beatdown; Clemson outgained the Terriers 533-213 in advance of its week two home game with Appalachian State next Saturday at 12:30 p.m., with a Sept. 17 trip to Louisville on the horizon.
“We play to a standard, not an opponent,” Scott said, “and we’re going to show that whoever lines up against us, we’re still going to go have that same tempo.”