An offseason of “you won the ACC, but about that Orange Bowl” was wiped out in one night for No. 14 Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
Tajh Boyd passed for 208 yards, Andre Ellington rushed for 231 and Clemson’s defense made stops when it needed to lead the Tigers to a 26-19 victory over Auburn.
“This puts a lot of wind in our sails as we kick the season off,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But this is just the beginning. All we did was accomplish our first goal, which was to win the opener.”
Clemson won the ACC last year, its first conference crown in 20 years, but all its players and coaches heard about was the 70 points it allowed in the Orange Bowl to West Virginia in the Tigers’ next game.
Swinney was defiant during the offseason that the Tigers had nothing to apologize for.
But they did have something to prove.
Brent Venables was brought in from Oklahoma to lead the defense and Clemson went to work. The results showed against Auburn.
While Clemson’s offense totaled 528 yards, its defense forced two turnovers and chased quarterback Kiehl Frazier all over the field. Their work forced field goals enough times to give Clemson’s offense time to take advantage of its difference in plays (66-47) and yards (374-324) in the first three quarters until it could take control of the game.
“We made a lot of good plays down the stretch on three and one,” Venables said. “We responded to adversity in a big-time way and it says a lot about our guys.”
Trailing 19-16 in the fourth quarter, Boyd guided Clemson to a 23-19 lead with 9:17 remaining. Boyd had three runs totaling 42 yards, with Ellington rushing for 20 more, before Boyd threw a perfectly weighted touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the corner.
“What a gutsy performance [by Boyd],” Swinney said. “We’ve talked to him about not taking sacks and making plays with his legs. We know that was the difference tonight.”
The Tigers added an 18-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line for the final score. They did all this without receiver Sammy Watkins, who is suspended for the first two games.
“Probably nobody’s celebrating more than Sammy back in Clemson,” Swinney said.
But Boyd and Ellington were all they needed. Auburn sacked Boyd four times in the first half, but they couldn’t get him down in the second half.
“We had our chances to win the game and we didn’t get it done,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It’s that simple.
“Defensively we couldn’t get off the field. They had a very quick offense and explosive tempo. At critical times in the game, they made plays defensively and we didn’t. Their quarterback is extremely talented.”
Clemson trailed 19-16 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, unable to take full advantage of scoring chances.
Auburn took a 19-16 lead after its defense created its first turnover when linebacker Daren Bates snagged a pass that bounced off the hands of tight end Sam Cooper. Boyd’s pass was thrown slightly behind Cooper, which pushed the deflection right into Bates’ stomach.
Onterio McCalebb ripped off runs of nine and 14 yards to move to the 12-yard line before Auburn was flagged for holding. Frazier, who struggled to find a rhythm all night, got lucky on the next play when Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford dropped an interception with mostly open field in front of him. Frazier overthrew his target on third and 17, forcing a 36-yard field goal that gave Auburn a 19-16 lead.
That drive was an example of Auburn’s inability to take advantage in the red zone. Auburn drove inside Clemson’s 20-yard three times, but scored just one touchdown.
“We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot in the red zone especially in our league,” tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen said.
The game featured new defensive coordinators facing off in Auburn’s Brian VanGorder and Venables. VanGorder is no stranger to college football fans in Georgia because of his previous ties to the Bulldogs, Falcons and Georgia Southern.
It didn’t take either offense long to beat the other’s defense.
Clemson kicked a 23-yard field goal after getting bogged down inside Auburn’s 10-yard line to take a first-quarter lead. But Clemson looked nervous, either because it was the season-opener or because Auburn’s defense was confusing them. Boyd recovered his own fumble on the first series, and Brandon Ford dropped a pass in the second series. But Boyd calmed down, completing a 25-yard pass to DeAndre Hopkins on third and 10 from the 24-yard line on the field-goal drive. The duo hooked up again for 20 yards with Hopkins shimmying his way for the final few.
Auburn answered with a 54-yard touchdown pass from Frazier to Emory Blake, who was ahead of Darius Robinson by more than five yards on a post pattern. It looked like the leaky pass defense N.C. State played against Tennessee on Friday in the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Clemson recovered a fumble by Tre Mason on 48-yard line and kicked a 40-yard field goal a few plays later to make it 7-6 Auburn with 10:06 left in the first half.
Clemson took advantage of another turnover – this time an interception of Frazier on third and 15 at the 33 – to take a 13-7 lead on an 8-yard touchdown run by Roderick McDowell. The scoring play was set up by a 68-yard run by Ellington, who spun off a tackler lying on the ground to sprint more than 50 yards farther down the field. It was reminiscent of one the plays in the Orange Bowl when West Virginia’s Andrew Buie rolled over a Clemson tackler and got up to run for 18 more yards.
Auburn’s offense got moving after the back-to-back turnovers, thanks to a 38-yard pass from Frazier to Lutzenkirchen. Auburn eventually kicked a 37-yard field goal to cut Clemson’s lead to 13-7 with 1:24 left in the half.
Chizik’s formula of running the ball and stopping the run wasn’t working either. Auburn rushed for 78 yards in the first half compared to Clemson’s 147. And Clemson wasn’t having much trouble passing, either. Though Boyd was sacked four times, he completed 15 of 20 passes in the half for 128 yards.
Auburn tied it at 13 on a 46-yard field with 8:38 remaining in the third quarter. Auburn’s offense was still having trouble moving the ball. The drive started on the 40, and only a 24-yard pass from Frazier to Blake on third and 9 at the 41 kept the drive alive.
Clemson answered it with a 37-yard field goal on a drive that showed Boyd’s athleticism and Swinney’s guts. Boyd looked to be sacked on third and 10 at Auburn’s 30, only to spin away from tacklers and hit for Charone Peake for nine yards. Swinney set the field goal team out on fourth and 1, but called timeout and elected to go for it. Ellington picked up the first down, but Clemson couldn’t take advantage with a touchdown because of consecutive dropped passes.
Though its offense seemed to be big play or nothing, Auburn tied the game at 16 with a 17-yard field goal. The drive was helped by a 20-yard run by McCalebb and a 19-yard pass to Lutzenkirchen.
The victory was the first for an ACC team in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, improving its record to 1-4. Virginia Tech will try to give the ACC another win next year when it takes on Alabama in a rematch of the 2009 contest won by the Tide, 34-24.
“I’m proud to get it for Clemson most of all, but it’s great for our conference,” Swinney said. “It doesn’t mean much in September though.”