If you did nothing more than take a quick glance at the score, you probably would have assumed it was a recap of Clemson/Wake Forest game from 15 years ago.
The Demon Deacons have been a thorn in Clemson?s side under Jim Grobe. Last year?s game is a perfect example. Despite crushing Wake statistically, Clemson needed some late game heroics to escape with a 27-17 victory.
Most assumed it would be another tight contest this year, especially considering Wake is the reigning ACC champion and a team loaded with tons of experience. Never mind the fact that Clemson has a reputation for producing letdowns.
But Saturday was different, very different. The Tigers delivered an old-fashioned whoppin? that caught everyone off guard. It wasn?t because Wake is a bad team that has received undue hype. In fact, Wake appears to be a pretty good team that is well coached and has more talent than most are willing to admit.
Clemson just wanted it more and put together a great performance under pressure.
It was obvious early in the game that Wake?s plan was to stop the run. It was a formula that worked well for opponents late last season when Clemson faltered down the stretch.
But that was last year.
Cullen Harper has replaced Will Proctor as Clemson?s quarterback and it appears that opponents can no longer focus on stopping just once phase of Clemson?s offense. The redshirt junior didn?t put up huge numbers in terms of yardage, but he threw for three touchdowns, ran for another, and completed 77% of his passes.
That?s not a bad day for a guy that many thought wouldn?t be on the field by this point of the season.
The fact that Clemson?s offense was so productive Saturday was a testament to Harper?s abilities. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence is a big believer in first down plays being the key to every drive but Clemson did not do a very good job of staying on schedule, registering four or more yards on just 14 of their 31 first down attempts.
That?s where Harper?s play became a huge factor. Clemson ended the day 7-of-12 on third down conversions while picking up four third-and-longs through the air.
The Tigers were ahead 27-7 after their first seven drives. In those drives, Harper had seven big completions on plays in which they faced 3rd-and-10 or longer and four on which they faced 3rd-and-5 or longer.
All told, he accumulated 154 yards passing on those 11 plays and also rushed for six yards and stopped the clock on a 2nd-and-5 play to help put them in field goal position just before the half.
The offensive line deserves a lot of credit for giving Harper enough time to make plays. They allowed just two sacks, with only one being a really poor mistake by the line, and rarely allowed the Deacs? rush to hurry the quarterback.
The position moves made along the line by Brad Scott earlier in the year have paid off in a big way. Thomas Austin continues to perform extremely well at center and Barry Humprhies looks more and more like a natural at guard with every snap he takes.
The question now is whether those moves or the elevated level of play by Barry Richardson has been the biggest factor in the line?s improvement. Richardson has become the player everyone though he would be during the last four weeks and made the left side nearly impenetrable, which is even more impressive considering guard Chris McDuffie has been hampered by injuries.
Chris Hairston continues to impress with his footwork and quickness. The freshman looked good against Wake?s athletic ends despite still being very rough around the edges. If he continues to develop as he should, he will become a very good player.
Receivers Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham extended their recent stretch of solid performances. Kelly set Clemson?s single-season mark for touchdown receptions by snagging two more to total 11 for the year and Grisham had his second 100-yard game of the season.
It has almost come to be expected but the receivers continued to block very well. The group as a whole as been very unselfish all year and seems to take as much pride in helping spring a big play as they do in making a big play.
Because Wake was so focused on stopping the run, James Davis and C.J. Spiller never really got on track. Spiller did manage to average 6.8 yards on just eight carries and Tyler Grisham picked up 24 yards on a reverse.
Davis did pick up some tough gains on short yardage plays and made created yardage with his tough style of running on others. He also performed well in pass protection.
Tommy Bowden has called out his defensive front in recent weeks and they appeared to finally take it to heart against Wake. The line had their best game of the year, limiting Wake to just 83 yards rushing and registering all five of the Tigers? sacks.
Jamie Cumbie?s move to the inside appears to have paid off. His athleticism and quickness enabled the Tigers to generate more of a speed rush up the middle. He still looks a little uncomfortable against the run, especially when having to deal with the double teams he wasn?t accustomed to on the outside, but the move has been fairly smooth so far.
Phillip Merling, Ricky Sapp, and Kourtnei Brown said that Chris Rumph turned them loose for the first time this year. Instead of trying to read and react, they were able to go all out with their rush more and it showed. They combined for four sacks and numerous hurries.
Their aggressiveness did create some openings for Wake quarterback Riley Skinner, who made a number of nice scrambles for positive yardage, but you sometimes have to take the good with the bad.
It should also be noted that Dorrell Scott had his best game of the year. He consistently got penetration that blew up a number of plays and he seemed to be playing in a different gear. He showed tremendous quickness on at least one play when he penetrated and chased Wake?s running back laterally until he got help on a stop that resulted in a loss.
The linebackers have played good assignment football most of the year and did the same again on Saturday. It?s hard to fault a group that?s completing their assignments but it would be nice to see them make more plays.
Instead of filling a gap and taking on a blocker to force a running back to bounce, they need to do a better job of taking it a step further by blowing up the block and making the tackle in the hole.
Tramaine Billie dropped an interception early in the game and just missed another one after making a great read of a screen when blitzing later in the day. Again, it was good assignment football but at some point they need to ratchet it up a notch by making a play.
Vic Koenning was scared of Wake?s big play potential. They have a couple of very speedy receivers with play-making ability and a tight end that has punished a number of defenses. He did a good job of disguising and mixing coverages throughout the day.
The secondary kept everything in front of them and didn?t allow a play of more than 20 yards. Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor looked very well prepared. Wake called a number of wide receiver screens but was never able to get them going because the corners read them from the onset and cut off the passing lanes.
Safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemmons were asked to do a lot Saturday and delivered with solid run support and pass defense. Wake was not able to exploit the middle of the field on the intermediate and deep routes like some play action teams have been able to do because those two guys were making great reads all day.
Mark Buchholz had his best day as a Tiger, becoming the first player in school history to kick three field goals in a game from 46 yards or longer. His 52-yarder was a career best and the longest for a Clemson kicker in 10 years.
He also had very good placement and distance on his kickoffs. The coverage unit was outstanding. Wake?s only big return of the day was for 38 yards and appeared to have been aided by a block in the back that was not called.
Jimmy Maners had just two punting attempts but did nothing to hurt his average, which was 47 yards for the game. The coverage unit did give up a 55-yarder when Wake set up a very well executed wall return to their sideline.
C.J. Spiller became the first player in school history to have kickoffs returns for touchdowns in consecutive games when he went 90 yards to kill any hopes Wake had of getting back in the game. Unlike earlier in the year, he caught the ball and took off instead of trying to make something happen. With his speed and ability, that?s always going to be his best option.
Both of his big returns were popped because he benefited from great blocks by DeAndre McDaniel. The freshman has become an important part of the Tigers? special teams units because of his level of effort and his ability to recognize that he?s still young and he can make his biggest impact there.
Rob Spence was criticized last year for being too conservative and he stated in the off-season he was going to make a concerted effort to shed that stereotype. So far, he has succeeded.
He has done an excellent job of keeping defenses off guard, has thrown the ball down field, and created ways to get the ball in the hands of his playmaker. All the while, he has helped Cullen Harper develop into a player who may be the biggest surprise in the conference this year.
Spence has also done a good job of trying to nail the opponents? coffin shut regardless of field position or time left on the clock. His offense has gotten the ball with poor field position and little time on the clock just before the half of the last two home games. Instead of sitting on the ball and going to the locker room with a lead, he?s put he foot on the pedal and successfully increased his lead.
Of course, it?s a lot easier to do that when you have confidence in the play of your quarterback.
Vic Koenning?s defense isn?t loaded with a ton of playmakers and they don?t always get the job done in the prettiest fashion, but they play solid team defense and have been good at always fighting through adversity.
Even in Clemson?s two losses, the defense played well enough to win because he does an excellent job of preparation and has called good games. Saturday was just another example of that.
It wasn?t too long ago that Wake?s offense was giving Clemson fits. It seemed everyone would approach this game with a sense of trepidation because the Deacs have had enough success in the past to plant that seed of doubt.
But Koenning?s teams have gotten better each year in terms of defending Wake?s attack. Last year, they gained less than 220 yards of offense and could barely move the ball but benefited from great field position. This year, there was never much doubt that they weren?t going to put very many points on the board.
The crowd was there and ready to be rowdy but the defense never really gave them a chance to get into the game because they dominated early and often.
It was a huge win for the Tigers in so many ways. It was a confidence builder. It was a sign that maybe they?ve finally gotten over the hump of not being able to deliver when it matters the most. But most importantly, it was a victory that truly puts their destiny in their hands.
Now it?s time to forget Wake. For that matter, it?s time to forget all that has happened so far.
Clemson now has an opportunity to win their first division title and a trip to Jacksonville. And despite losing two straight, Boston College is in the same position as Clemson.
It?s a one game season at this point. The team that wants it the most usually wins in these situations, and that will probably be the case Saturday night.
But they are two teams headed in opposite directions, which could mean it?s going to come down to which team collects their wits and approaches the contest with the right amount of level headedness.
Clemson is flying high and feeling good about themselves, which can lead to playing like world beaters or underestimating an opponent. BC has to be a little down in the dumps, which can lead to backs against the wall, let?s fight our way out mentality or they may throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity.
Whatever the case may be, it should be a great atmosphere Saturday night.