CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said the Tigers’ much-needed breakout performance over South Carolina State was good the fifth-ranked Tigers — and came at exactly the right time.
The offense, sluggish through a pair of six-point wins over Auburn and Troy the first two weeks, exploded in a 59-0 victory over South Carolina State on Saturday. Sure, the FCS Bulldogs were clearly overmatched, but Watson said Clemson (3-0) got the chance to correct errors and gain some rhythm with its Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Georgia Tech (3-0) coming up Thursday night.
“We’re very confident,” Watson said Monday. “We’ve got a lot of swagger on both sides of the ball.”
It was especially critical for the offense, a supposedly once-in-a-generation amalgam of skill players that had looked rather ordinary in its two opening games. Watson was adamant that no one had panicked, but yet he apologized to fans before last week’s game for the “negative energy” he felt he brought to the Troy outing.
There was no need for any “I’m sorrys” this time around, just further refinement and focus to get the ACC season started off right, Watson said.
“Nothing that we were too frustrated about,” Watson said. “Great teams improve throughout the season every week. We got better, a lot of people got more experience. It was something we really needed going into this week.”
The Tigers finished with a season-high 555 yards. Watson was nearly flawless in less than a half of play, completing 12 of 15 throws for 152 yards and three touchdowns. His receivers, who committed eight drops in a 30-24 win over Troy a week earlier, also performed well. Their performance made up for the loss of reliable Hunter Renfrow, who had TD grabs in Clemson’s first two games but is out for about a month with a broken hand.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said his offense’s rebound began at the end of the Troy game where the Tigers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, all of them necessary to lock things up against the pesky Trojans.
Clemson carried that into a 31-point opening quarter against South Carolina State.
“It was good to see the guys come out and have fun,” Elliott said. “The biggest thing is taking the pressure off and getting back to doing what we do: Play fast, distribute the ball, guys having fun in everybody else’s success.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said Clemson, who beat the Yellow Jackets 43-24 at Death Valley last year, will be his team’s most talented opponent so far.
“They’re going to come in here with a bunch of cats,” he said. “We’ve got to see if we can line up and play with them. We didn’t a year ago, two years ago we did. I don’t think we’ll be afraid, but we’ve got to play.”
The challenge for Clemson is to carry that success into Georgia Tech, where the Tigers haven’t won since Elliott was a junior receiver who caught a 9-yard TD pass to beat the Yellow Jackets in 2003.
“You get those stories from your parents, ‘This hasn’t happened since I did it,'” Elliott said, laughing. “I was telling some of guys, ‘We hadn’t won down in Atlanta since the last time I played.'”
Watson, a native of Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour north of Atlanta, has some bad memories of facing Tech. As a freshman in 2014, Watson injured his knee and would eventually need offseason surgery, in the first half of Clemson’s 28-6 — its last regular-season defeat.
“I have flashbacks about that,” said Watson, who had missed the previous three games with a hand injury. “I was excited to play and then that first quarter going down. Of course, it’s going to pop up in my mind, but it won’t be anything too serious.”
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