CLEMSON — Thrilling, nail-biting victories might be fun for fans, and a gold mine for TV executives. But in truth, many players hate sweating out close wins to the end.
As it turns out, against lesser opponents, winning by 54 brings a lot more joy in Clemson. Six different Tigers crossed the goal line as Clemson trounced Syracuse 54-0 Saturday afternoon in front of 80,609 fans on Military Appreciation Day at Memorial Stadium.
“We wanted to set the tempo for November,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re getting into the fourth quarter of our season, so we started fast, and really didn’t let up all day.”
The No. 1 line on No. 2 Clemson’s playoff resume is the “0” in the loss column. But it sure doesn’t hurt to remind the College Football Playoff selection committee it can win with style and points, so many points.
Saturday felt like Clemson (9-0, 6-0 ACC) was overdue to take somebody to the woodshed in its own backyard, as the Tigers had won its previous three home games vs. Division I competition by a total of 19 points. Clemson notched its second defensive shutout of 2016, and first against a FBS opponent.
“This is the fruit of our labor,” senior linebacker Ben Boulware said. “People are gonna say, ‘it’s Syracuse,’ but they’ve got a lot of athletes. It’s a difficult scheme to play against. To go out there and get a shutout, it’s a difficult thing to do.”
Sophomore wide receiver Deon Cain caught five passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns, the first 100-yard effort of his career. Cain has eight touchdowns on 22 receptions this season, and his 13 career scoring receptions already puts him on the doorstep of the Clemson all-time top-ten list just 22 games into his time at Clemson.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson was 13-for-16 for 169 yards and two passing touchdowns, plus carried in his second rushing score of the year from one yard out. But he suffered a possible “stinger” injury in his neck and shoulder area at the end of a 13-yard run late in the first half, and did not return for precautionary reasons.
“Nothing serious. It doesn’t even hurt,” said Watson, indicating he believes he’ll be fully healthy for Monday’s practice.
With Watson expected to enter the 2017 NFL Draft, next year’s quarterback competition figures to draw interest. In a way, it’s a shame backup quarterback Nick Schuessler’s eligibility expires after this season, as he’d have been an intriguing option as Watson’s successor.
Schuessler, a fifth-year reserve who has already graduated, turned in his finest career performance Saturday. After Watson departed, Schuessler kept the offense humming, leading all passers with 177 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-17 attempts.
“We try to do a good job in practice, getting the timing down so Deshaun is not always throwing to the (starting) receivers,” Schuessler said. “It was good to get some live work with the guys and beneficial for me for the rest of the season.”
The score margin, Schuessler’s effectiveness and the Tigers defense’s pursuit of a goose egg allowed Clemson the luxury of holding out Watson. In an official statement from the team, Watson was declared healthy to play with a bruised shoulder but did not participate in the second half.
Mike Williams and Artavis Scott also caught touchdown passes, Wayne Gallman added his eighth rushing touchdown, and freshman Tanner Muse had a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Syracuse (4-5, 2-3) starting quarterback, Eric Dungey, was dismissed from the game with an apparent head injury in the first half. Dungey and replacement Austin Wilson threw a total of three interceptions.
“I don’t think the mindset of the team changed, but I do think that any time you lose your starting quarterback on an offense that’s geared towards the pass, then that’s going to get dramatically changed,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “That’s pretty typical even in the NFL; you lose your starting quarterback early in the game, it normally doesn’t work out well for you.”
The Tigers are now one conference win away, either Saturday vs. Pitt (5-4, 2-3) or Nov. 19 at Wake Forest (6-3, 3-2), from locking up the Atlantic Division’s ticket to the ACC Championship Game, to be held Dec. 3 in Orlando. Clemson is now 26-1 dating to Nov. 15, 2014.