Tigers hang on for road win at Auburn

By Scott Adamson
Courtesy The Journal

CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney gave his Clemson team an “A” for effort and handed out high marks to the defense after he was able to take stock of Saturday’s 19-13 victory over Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Overall, however, the Tiger offense fell short of making the coach’s honor roll.

“We didn’t play anywhere near how I expected us to play offensively,” Swinney said on Sunday. “But we found a way to win the opener.”

Deshaun Watson threw for 248 yards and a touchdown, while Mike Williams caught nine balls for 174 yards. Wayne Gallman netted 123 rushing yards on 30 carries, and all of those numbers are impressive.

Still, they didn’t produce the point-a-minute attack some had predicted.

“The main goal is to get the win,” Watson said on Monday. “We don’t worry (about living up to) what the media has to say about the potential of the offense. We know what we can do. We know we all have to be on the same page. Just because we didn’t put up 500 yards and 40 points doesn’t mean that we’re still not explosive. We know every opponent is going to come ready to play, and we have to earn it.”

9-7 Page 1B.inddClemson was its own worst enemy on several drives, although the Auburn defense showed it was not intimidated by a team that averaged 38.5 points and 514.5 yards per game in 2015.

“The most disappointing thing was the procedure issues,” Swinney said. “Obviously, we jumped offsides the first play and then we wasted a few timeouts before the half because we couldn’t get the signal in. Then we break the huddle from the sideline, and we’ve got a guy who didn’t know the play. That was disappointing, and we had four drops — three (that would have been) touchdowns. The four drops were critical plays for us.

“Then we had some mental errors — not staying in bounds at the end of the game.”

The waning moments provided quite a bit of drama as Auburn quarterback Sean White heaved two passes into the end zone on the game’s final two plays — aerials that, had they been caught, would’ve tied the game and led to a potential upset.

Auburn’s chance came after Gallman ran out of bounds on Clemson’s final offensive march, thus stopping the clock and extending the game. It appeared the defending ACC champions would then line up for a field goal with less than a minute to play and try to put the contest out of reach. Instead, Swinney opted to go for a first down from the home team’s 17, only to see his squad come up short and turn the ball over on downs.

That gave Gus Malzahn’s team a puncher’s chance, with 40 seconds to go the other way.

“We trust Wayne Gallman,” Swinney said. “He ends up bouncing out. The competitiveness of him took over and he made a bad decision in that moment. Most of the time we would kick a field goal, but in that moment, in those circumstances, in that situation, we were all in agreement in what we wanted to do. We’d already seen a high snap, a low kick and our defense had played well. And (Auburn) hadn’t demonstrated they could go down the field passing the ball on us.

“If we had executed, the game is over. With 40 seconds and no timeouts, 83 yards to the end zone — I’ll take my chances with that.”

Save for a late-hit penalty on Ben Boulware that gave Auburn a fresh set of downs and led to its second TD, the last-gasp effort of the SEC club wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Brent Venables’ Clemson defense had 13 tackles for loss, three sacks, forced three turnovers and manhandled Auburn much of the night, limiting its offense to 262 yards.

Kendall Joseph was in on nine tackles (six solo), Dexter Lawrence was part of five and Christian Wilkins, Boulware and Van Smith had four unassisted takedowns apiece.

But …

“They also made some really critical mistakes,” Swinney said. “For the most part, it’s probably the fewest critical errors we’ve had in a while, especially in an opener, but we had a really, really dumb penalty that led to a touchdown. It would’ve been fourth and 10 if we don’t hit the quarterback out of bounds. Those are the type of things that you can’t do. And we gave up a big play when we’re in a three-deep, and our three-deep safety is playing the run.

“A couple of critical errors, but our defense just played tremendous.”

Bottom line: Clemson left Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 1-0 record, and now gets two consecutive games at Memorial Stadium — against Troy and South Carolina State, respectively — that should provide an opportunity to work out the kinks, especially on offense.

“At times I wanted to see a little bit quicker tempo (against Auburn),” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said on Monday. “We want to give Deshaun and (center Jay Guillermo) the opportunity to identify some things to help us become more efficient on offense. In terms of tempo, we had two three-and-outs and two turnovers, and that reduced our play count. But if we continue to stay consistent and don’t turn the ball over, we’ll get those 80-plus plays.”