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Clemson crushes Wake Forest in football season opener unlike any other

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The Clemson defense on Saturday night at Wake Forest resembled the group that dominated ACC opponents last season. Provided/ACC 

WINSTON-SALEM — Even in a year of seismic change for the nation and the institutions of which it's comprised, certain truths persist.

College football, for instance, is still a favored diversion. And Clemson is still the sport's main attraction.

Inside a virtually empty Truist Field, the Tigers on Saturday night opened the season with a 37-13 rout of Wake Forest on national television.  

Coach Dabo Swinney said it was "emotional" when his team first took the field after all the uncertainty surrounding the start of the season. Though the Big Ten and the Pac-12 opted out of the fall season, the ACC, SEC and Big 12 decided to move forward in earnest.

"This is what we love to do," he said. "This is not just a job. This is our passion. This is what we love to do. It's hard work, but I don't consider it work."

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the sport's most recognizable player who in recent weeks has used his platform to push for racial equality and player empowerment, was terrific.

He carved Wake Forest with the same precision he did Alabama in the 2019 College Football Playoff national championship game and so many opponents last season. He finished 22-of-28 passing for 351 yards and one touchdown and rushed for two scores. 

His counterpart, Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman, could not crack Clemson's defense. The Oceanside Collegiate product went 11-for-21 for 181 yards passing.

Wake Forest pumped fake crowd noise into the fan-less stadium, and after the Demon Deacons' first score — a third quarter field goal with the contest out of reach — gold-colored fireworks shot up over the home team's football building.

It was misplaced pomp. Then again, not much about this year has felt on point. Americans continue to die daily from the coronavirus, and that somber truth has forced the sports world to adapt. 

Saturday, in the Tigers' first game since a wrenching loss to LSU in the 2020 national title game, cardboard cutouts took the place of breathing humans in the stands. 

Coach Dabo Swinney's team hardly seemed to mind. After an offseason unlike any other, the Tigers got the chance to put on their helmets and take the stage. The lights were shining. Clemson hit its cue. 

"Everybody could've quit. Everybody could've walked away, everybody could've gone, coaches, players," Swinney said. "Everybody kept the faith. And here we are."

What went right

Lawrence wasn't the only returning star who excelled Saturday. Running back Travis Etienne, the program's all-time leading rusher, rushed 17 times for 102 yards and a touchdown. The junior also caught three passes for 47 yards.

Amari Rodgers dropped a would-be touchdown in the first quarter but still finished with a team-best 90 receiving yards and tied with tight end Braden Galloway for a team-high five receptions. Galloway had 60 receiving yards and his backup J.C. Chalk caught a 12-yard touchdown for the first score of his career.

Clemson outgained Wake Forest, 561-327. 

Kicker B.T. Potter, who struggled with his accuracy at times last season, converted both of his field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder as time expired in the first half.  

What went wrong

After freshman D.J. Uiagalelei spelled Lawrence and went 2-for-3 passing for 16 yards — ending weeks of uncertainty about who would be Lawrence's backup — redshirt freshman Taisun Phommachanh entered and threw an interception.

It was a rare misstep for the Tigers in a game that felt all but over when they entered halftime with a 27-0 advantage.

Defensive tackle Tyler Davis suffered an injury and left the field under his own power but limped back to the locker room after the game. 

Turning point

Clemson started the game with a three-and-out, but after the Tigers defense forced Wake Forest to punt the next possession, Swinney's team never looked back.

Lawrence set the tone for the one-sided affair by orchestrating a nine-play, 92-yard drive capped by a 2-yard touchdown scamper for the quarterback.

Without a home crowd offering morale support, the Demon Deacons floundered from then on. The Tigers were in control. 

Looking ahead

Clemson welcomes The Citadel to Death Valley for the team's home opener next Saturday. It will be the Tigers' lone non-conference contest this season. The Bulldogs on Saturday fell, 27-6, to South Florida and its new coach Jeff Scott, Clemson's former co-offensive coordinator.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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