CLEMSON — Unfinished business, check.
Of all the goals in front of No. 3 Clemson, the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff standings, this was a big one. The Tigers refused to lose one more time to former nemesis No. 17 Florida State, shaking off a tentative start to triumph 23-13 Saturday to send 83,099 fans at Memorial Stadium into pandemonium.
For now, Clemson’s place in the race to make college football’s final four is safe. Going into Saturday, the Tigers (9-0, 6-0 ACC) had collected 40 wins since the start of 2012 — and none against Florida State (7-2, 5-2), whose three-year reign as conference champs and Clemson’s nemesis is history.
“We just won the division championship against the team that’s kicked our butt three years in a row,” head coach Dabo Swinney declared. “It was just our time. That was championship football tonight.”
Indeed, the Tigers clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title, punching their ticket for the 2015 ACC Championship Game on Dec. 5 at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
Before that, the next three weeks feature games against three-win teams — Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina — which makes a clear path to 12-0, all because Clemson finally slayed the Seminoles.
“We’re still not done,” junior defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “We’ve still got to finish out, because if Syracuse beats us next week, it’s like, ‘Oh, Clemson messed up.’ Every game is important for us to get where we want to be.”
Clemson’s defense made the tough stops when they were needed. Due to a 44-yard kick return by Kermit Whitfield, Florida State started a drive in Clemson territory down three points with 7:14 remaining, and brought up third-and-1. But two run attempts by Dalvin Cook were stoned for no gain, the latter a toss sweep snuffed out by Lawson and linebacker Ben Boulware.
That was redemption in its own way, as Cook opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown up the gut and ripped off 157 yards in the first half. He had just 37 yards on nine carries in the second half.
On the next drive after Cook was stopped, Clemson senior wide receiver Charone Peake made a couple of clutch third-down catches to move the chains, and sophomore tailback Wayne Gallman’s insurance 25-yard touchdown run gave the Tigers a 10-point lead with 2:34 remaining.
Freshman walk-on kicker Greg Huegel was good from 31, 25 and 34 yards, improving to 13-for-13 in ACC games this year. The third of those kicks broke a 13-13 tie with 7:23 to go.
“I wasn’t worried about it because I trust my line, my snapper and my holder,” said Huegel, crediting the snapper (Pinewood Prep product Jim Brown) and holder (Seth Ryan, Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan’s son.)
“You just have to be confident. I just focus on the kick itself, not really what it means.”
Last year’s overtime loss at Florida State was marred by two misses by Ammon Lakip, whom Huegel replaced as the team’s placekicker due to Lakip’s suspension for an offseason drug arrest.
After failing to find the end zone for the game’s first 35 minutes, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott drew up a nifty play-call. On third-and-2 from the Florida State 38-yard-line, sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson darted a screen pass to freshman receiver Deon Cain, who was born and raised in Tallahassee a fan of Florida State and Deion Sanders.
With tight end Jordan Leggett setting a pick on cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and offensive linemen Jay Guillermo and Eric Mac Lain quickly heading upfield, Cain followed his blocks for a 38-yard score to give Clemson its first lead (13-10) with 10:01 remaining in the third quarter.
FSU quarterback Sean Maguire steered a game-tying drive ending in the second of two Roberto Aguayo field goals, but was irritated by a deafening Death Valley crowd and finished with just 164 passing yards. The Seminoles, who turned it over twice without a takeaway, did not produce a touchdown after Cook’s long scoring run 45 seconds into the game.
“Offensively, we played well early but we missed some third downs and red-zone situations,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think our guys wanted it too bad. They didn’t quit or have bad intentions, they just needed to keep their poise.”
Meanwhile, Watson (28-for-42, 297 yards, TD) produced his first 100-yard rushing game with 107 yards on 16 carries.
“He showed why he’s the best quarterback in the country ... with the guts and heart he showed tonight,” Swinney said.
Leggett produced his first career 100-yard receiving game, making six grabs for 101 yards.
Swinney had never been head coach in a game at Death Valley tied at the end of the third quarter. He improved to 8-18 in his head coaching career when trailing at halftime.