SYRACUSE, New York — DeShaun Watson made sure Clemson stayed on track for a shot at the national championship.
The sophomore also kept his name in the talk about the Heisman Trophy, accumulating 461 total yards and accounting for three touchdowns to help the top-ranked Tigers hold off Syracuse 37-27 on Saturday.
"We didn't think we were going to come up here and just walk through and pick up a big win," said Watson, who threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 101 yards and another score. "We had to earn it. They came out and were pushing us and played 'til the end. Glad to have this one and move on to the next."
The win gave the Tigers (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference; No. 1 CFP) at least 10 victories for the fifth straight season and their first 10-0 start since they won their only national championship in 1981. With 13 straight wins, the Tigers also have their longest winning streak in 34 years.
Watson completed 34 of 47 passes against a team that has now lost seven straight. Syracuse (3-7, 1-5 ACC) put up a good fight for embattled coach Scott Shafer, but fell to 1-10 against No. 1 teams.
"There are a bunch of fighters in that room," Shafer said. "We stay true to who we are, and that's a team that will continue to play until the last whistle. Disappointed in the loss, but proud of the fact that the kids played extremely hard."
Syracuse made a game of it from the start, forcing two early fumbles and repeatedly finding gaping holes in the Clemson defensive line with walk-on Zack Mahoney at quarterback in only his second career start. The Orange rushed for 242 yards and scored their three touchdowns on the ground against a team that had allowed only nine rushing scores.
Another peril survived on the rocky road to college football's final four.
"I know everybody thinks that we should just show up, go out there and kill everybody by 50 points, but that's la-la land," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "This is football. Everybody has good players and good coaches. We made some mistakes."
Leading 31-17 at halftime, Clemson failed to score in the third quarter for the first time this season and the Orange closed to 31-24 on Mahoney's 14-yard run.
The Orange defense held Wayne Gallman in check as he managed 66 yards on 15 carries, boosting his season total to 1,043. His 14-yard run on fourth-and-2 early in the fourth quarter, though, proved key. It set up Greg Huegel's 31-yard field goal with 13:33 to play for a 34-24 lead.
The Orange closed to 34-27 on Cole Murphy's 24-yard field goal early in the fourth, but the Tigers came right back with Huegel's third field goal and then Watson worked more of his magic.
After Syracuse elected to punt on a fourth-and-8 play, the Orange never got the ball back over the final 5:57. Watson, with the help of three Syracuse penalties, guided the Tigers on a 13-play, 69-yard drive and the game ended with Clemson at the Orange 10.
"I never got myself in disbelief in my team," Watson said. "I never doubted."
Clemson appeared poised for another rout, scoring twice in the first two minutes.
Watson hit Charon Peake with a 64-yard pass on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage and Gallman scored from the 11 on the next play for a 7-0 lead after just 33 seconds.
Mahoney then fumbled the first play for the Orange, and Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd recovered at the Syracuse 23. Watson's 3-yard run gave the Tigers a 14-0 lead after just 1:59 of play.
"You can't spot the No. 1 team in the country 14 points in the first two minutes of the game," Shafer said. "A hard one to swallow because we were in a position where we could play and beat this team. We talked about if we could get it to a seven-point game our crowd would help us."
Mahoney, fifth on the depth chart in preseason, acquitted himself well in his debut in September, throwing for three TDs against then-No. 8 LSU in a 34-24 loss. He was just as good in this one despite some early jitters, finishing with 76 yards and two TDs rushing. He was 8 of 21 for 80 yards passing.
After Syracuse forged a surprising 14-all tie late in the first quarter, the Tigers struck twice in four minutes as Watson used the short passing game to put the Orange defense on its heels. He completed five passes for 53 yards as Clemson moved deep into Syracuse territory, then hit Peake in the left corner of the end zone to break the tie.
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