WINSTON SALEM, N.C. — Dabo Swinney spent much of his summer and early days of fall trying to convince anyone and everyone who would listen that his running backs group could easily hold its own with any in the country.
Clemson's quarterbacks dominated the preseason conversation – the competition between senior Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence was a national story. But he shouted praise from the rooftops when it came to this group of running backs and when the season opened, he had a gut feeling he couldn't shake.
Soon, he would say, his running backs would make a splash so loud that it would be impossible not to notice them.
Such was the case Saturday at Wake Forest, when Clemson clobbered the Demon Deacons, 63-3, and Swinney’s running backs put on an absolute clinic against a defense they charged all over. All four of Clemson’s scholarship backs played valuable minutes and Travis Etienne, Adam Choice and Lyn-J Dixon combined for a jaw-dropping 458 yards. Tavien Feaster was nursing a mid-game shoulder injury.
Etienne led the pack with 167 yards and three touchdowns on 10 carries, while Dixon added 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 10 carries. Choice, a fifth-year graduate, had 128 yards on 10 carries, including a 64-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"I’ve never been around a group of guys where every week we’re coming in and we’ve got seven, eight, nine explosive runs and then you’re having some of the bigger explosive runs," Clemson co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said. "I think a couple of those were 50-yard runs."
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson didn't expect his defense to collapse.
"We've got problems right now," he said. "I didn't see this coming, but they played very well. And we didn't."
What went right
In addition to the running backs setting the tone, the Tigers got some encouraging results on the quarterback front with Trevor Lawrence looking healthy in his second start. A week after Lawrence was sidelined for the entire second half against Syracuse with concussion-like symptoms, he returned and lit up the scoreboard as Clemson’s quarterback of the future. After a slow start, Lawrence threw for two touchdowns, one on a 55-yard strike to freshman receiver Justyn Ross, who picked up his fourth touchdown of the year, and another on a 20-yard dart to Tee Higgins.
Lawrence finished 20-of-25 passing for 175 yards and he was able to shake off what appeared to be a leg injury early in the game. Between Lawrence, Ross, Higgins and Etienne, the Tigers’ youth group continued to impress and Saturday was the perfect opportunity Clemson was looking for to get backup quarterback Chase Brice more snaps. Walk-on freshman Ben Batson even got in the game at quarterback and perhaps the loudest cheers of the day came when wide receiver Hunter Renfrow took his first snap as a quarterback.
Swinney was pleased with Lawrence, who turned 19 years old on Saturday.
"We like our quarterback. We’ve got a guy that can absolutley rip it," Swinney said. "A couple of throws he made today are just 'wow.' Bullets. And he didn’t flinch."
From a defensive standpoint, the Tigers were in command from start to finish. The Demon Deacons punted the ball a whopping 12 times. Of their 16 drives, a dozen resulted in punts, two were turnovers on downs, one was an interception into the hands of Clemson safety Tanner Muse and the other was a field goal.
"The days are ticking, man. We're not getting this time back," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "In order to have a chance to be a team that can compete for a league championship, everybody’s got to turn up their intensity, commitment (and) passion for playing good football."
What went wrong
For the third straight week, Clemson started slow. The Tigers’ first three drives ended with two punts and a fumble by Lawrence as they struggled to get anything going. Slow starts have ultimately not been game-changers for Clemson thus, but when the Tigers start to get into potential postseason territory, that could become problematic in an ACC Championship and or College Football Playoff matchup. For a team that prides itself on moving — and scoring — quickly, Clemson heads into the bye week needing to clean that up.
Etienne has a way of busting games open and he did so again Saturday. His 59-yard run up the middle to put Clemson on the board in the first quarter gave Lawrence some confidence to settle in with the offense. When Etienne punched in another 3-yard score two series later, Clemson had a comfortable 14-0 lead it would never relinquish.
A year after Clemson headed into its bye week saddled with a loss, the Tigers charge into the 2018 bye week undefeated at 6-0. The Tigers host N.C. State on Oct. 20 at Death Valley.