COLUMBIA — Clemson wide receiver Artavis Scott fumbled and four plays later South Carolina running back Shon Carson bulled his way into the end zone for a touchdown, suddenly giving the unbeaten Tigers reason to worry.
After Lorenzo Nunez’s two-point conversion cut the Tigers’ lead to 28-25 with 12:19 remaining in the fourth quarter, the partisan Gamecocks crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium came to life.
The top-ranked Tigers were getting everything they could handle from a 3-8 South Carolina team that a week earlier turned in a lifeless performance in a loss to The Citadel.
But the Tigers had something, or someone, that the Gamecocks didn’t — quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The unflappable Watson stood calmly on the Tigers’ sideline, arm crossed over his chest waiting for another opportunity.
Over the next 4 minutes and 14 seconds, Watson put on a quarterback clinic, slicing through the Gamecocks’ defense with his passing and running, on the way to what turned out to be the game-winning drive.
In 10 plays, Watson completed three of five passes for 35 yards, including two strikes on third-and-long plays that kept the drive alive.
On the final third down of the drive, Watson scored from 3 yards out to give the Tigers a 34-25 lead with 8:05 left in the game.
“I’m always relaxed in those situations, it’s a blessing to be out here,” said Watson, who threw for 279 yards, rushed for a team-high 114 yards and accounted for four TDs in the Tigers’ 37-32 victory. “I love playing in games like this. We’ve been in that situation before when we needed to score or make a play and the guys stepped up and made some big plays. It gives me an opportunity to show my skill set and what I’m capable of doing.”
The Tigers, who were a season-high nine of 13 on third down against the Gamecocks, faced a 3rd-and-9 early in the drive. Watson was able to find Jordan Leggett for an 11-yard gain that took the ball down to the USC 36.
Three plays later, Clemson found themselves in a 3rd-and-7 and lined up with an empty backfield and five wide receivers.
But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t like the play call and signaled for a timeout.
“We could have been conservative and got 4 or 5 yards and kicked a field goal,” Swinney said. “I didn’t want to do that. We didn’t come here for that. We got into a better play with more options. We came here to win a national championship.”
The Gamecocks’ defense dropped back into a zone with two safeties deep to limit a big play opportunity.
It didn’t matter.
Watson threw a laser to Trevion Thompson for a 24-yard gain that took the ball down to the USC 9.
“Deshaun Watson was unbelievable again,” Swinney said. “He’s very comfortable on that stage. It’s what he’s born to do, that’s the only thing I can tell you. What a throw he made to Trevion. Are you kidding me? Right into a two-deep zone. I mean he just threw a rope, but that’s Deshaun. That’s what he does.
“No. 4 was the difference in the game. It’s just that simple, but that’s what great players do. They make everyone around them better. I think he’s the best player in the country. He doesn’t flinch, he keeps grinding and he makes great decisions.”
Three plays later, facing another third down, Watson capped off the drive with a 3-yard TD run that put the game out of reach.
“Those third-down plays he made is what makes Deshaun special,” said Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “You could see his arm talent and what he can do with his feet on that drive. On third down it comes down to decision making. There’s not anyone I’d rather have back there on third down than Deshaun Watson.”