TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Spencer Benton’s strong leg produced a 61-yard field goal two games ago against Ball State and was considered a weapon on Clemson kickoffs. But a sudden puzzling inability to get the ball into the end zone made head coach Dabo Swinney bench Benton and go with freshman Bradley Pinion in the third quarter of Florida State’s 49-37 victory Saturday night.
Pinion’s first kickoff was a touchback.
“(Benton) just didn’t hit it good,” Swinney said. “So I made a change and Pinion almost put it in the stands.”
In perhaps the turning point of Florida State’s 49-37 victory, Lamarcus Joyner raced 90 yards to the Clemson 10 after fielding a Pinion kickoff. EJ Manuel threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Greene to cap a two-play drive that cut the Tigers’ lead to 31-28.
“That was a huge, huge momentum play,” Swinney said. “It kind of lit a fire over there.”
Running back Andre Ellington had his bright moments, including a 52-yard touchdown reception from Sammy Watkins.
But the Berkeley High School grad was held to 55 yards rushing on 14 carries to go with his 87 yards receiving.
“The game got away from us,” Ellington said. “We have to stay focused.”
The Tigers obviously have shortcomings and/or technique issues on defense but Swinney said he has no problem with the effort.
“I’m proud of them continuing to fight,” he said.
EJ Manuel was injured and didn’t play when Florida State lost at Clemson in 2011. And though backup Clint Trickett played well in the Seminoles’ 35-30 loss, he isn’t the Heisman contender Florida State has in its 6-5, 238-pound senior.
Manuel’s 380 yards passing is a career high. He completed 77.1 percent of his passes (27 for 35).
“I don’t remember him making a bad decision all night,” Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Florida State came into Saturday night’s ACC showdown of top 10 teams with a heavy experience advantage in the trenches. Junior defensive end Bjoern Werner entered the game leading the nation in sacks with 6.5.
Everett Dawkins, a 6-3, 300-pound senior defensive tackle from Spartanburg (Byrnes High School), is one of the ACC’s best.
But a callow Clemson offensive line, which includes first-year starters Tyler Shatley at guard and Gifford Timothy at tackle on the vulnerable right side, took a solid step until the Tigers’ fell into must-passing situations.
Two keys to progress:
Play calls by offensive coordinator Chad Morris that kept Werner and others off quarterback Tajh Boyd. The Tigers, for instance, opened with a quick 7-yard pass to tight end Sam Cooper, neutralizing Werner’s rush from the left side.
It helped that Clemson patched its offensive line back together. Shatley (ankle) started after leaving last week’s Furman game early. Left guard David Beasley (knee) missed the Furman game but returned to the starting lineup.
Clemson had easy wins over Ball State and Furman over the last two weeks but recorded only one sack over 60 pass attempts. The Tigers got only one sack at Florida State (cornerback Bashaud Breeland).
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ 60-yard touchdown play on Clemson’s first drive was the longest reception of his career. Previous best: 50-yard non-scoring play in the Tigers’ 35-30 win over Florida State last year.
Defensive tackle DeShawn Williams (foot) was listed as probable but played (and had a tipped pass in the first quarter). Linebacker Jonathan Willard (shoulder) missed the Furman game but started.
Clemson deep snapper Phillip Fajgenbaum made the biggest play of his career, recovering a fumble after Florida State’s Rashad Greene signaled for a fair catch on a second-quarter punt. Four plays later, tight end Brandon Ford (Hanahan High School) caught a touchdown pass to give the Tigers a 21-14 lead.
It was the ninth meeting of ACC teams ranked in the Associated Press top 10.
1981. No. 2 Clemson 10, No. 8 North Carolina 8 (the Tigers went on to win the national championship).
1997. No. 3 Florida State 20, No. 5 North Carolina 3.
1999. No. 1 Florida State 41, No. 10 Georgia Tech 35 (featuring Alvin’s Joe Hamilton at quarterback for Georgia Tech).
2000. No. 4 Florida State 54, No. 10 Clemson 7 (Bowden Bowl II).
2004. No. 5 Miami 16, No. 4 Florida State 10 (overtime).
2004. No. 7 Florida State 36, No. 6 Virginia 3.
2005. No. 5 Miami 27, No. 3 Virginia Tech 7.
2007. No. 2 Boston College 14, No. 8 Virginia Tech 10.
Clemson plays next week at Boston College. The Eagles (1-2, 0-1 in the ACC with a 41-32 home loss to Miami) were idle Saturday.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff