Clemson holds off Florida State with strong finish
By Alex Maminakis
CLEMSON — Clemson’s slow start to the second half on Saturday allowed Florida State to get within three points in the fourth quarter. But the No. 4 Tigers came up with enough big plays late to defeat the Seminoles 31-14 and secure a third straight ACC Atlantic Division title.
Clemson (9-1, 7-1 ACC) led 17-7 after three quarters, but Florida State (3-6, 3-5) scored on a 90-yard drive to end the third and a 60-yard touchdown early in the fourth to get within three points, 17-14.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant fumbled in Tigers territory on their next possession, but on the very next play, Van Smith intercepted FSU quarterback James Blackman.
Four plays later, Travis Etienne broke a 25-yard run and scored two plays later to put Clemson in front 24-14.
“At the end of the day, you play four quarters for a reason,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the win. “Our guys rose up and they finished. Good teams win games like that, and our team has shown that time and time again.”
Clemson outscored Florida State 17-0 in the first half, and out-gained the Seminoles in yards 183-46. Florida State bounced back in the second half with 183 yards, but the interception to Smith and lack of a running game — 21 rushing yards in the game on 24 carries — didn’t do the ‘Noles any favors.
The Clemson defense sacked the freshman Blackman five times, made 10 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles. Even without starting defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph, both put with injuries, the pressure the Tigers brought to the young Florida State backfield was smothering on Saturday night.
“We were all dialed in. (Defensive coordinator Brent Venables) gave us a chance to really get after (Blackman),” defensive end Austin Bryant said. “We knew they struggled along the offensive front, so we knew we were gonna have a chance to get a lot of pressure on him, and we were able to do that tonight.”
Blackman finished 13-32 passing for 208 yards and freshman FSU running back Cam Akers rushed 12 times for 40 yards.
Clemson’s offense, led by Kelly Bryant, totaled 378 yards. Bryant and the Tigers struggled to move the ball in the third quarter and early into the fourth, but after his fumble Bryant was happy with the response of the whole team.
“It was gut check for us,” he said of his fumble. “It was good to see the defense come out and get a turnover right there, and (the offense) go out and finish the last two drives that we feel like early on we didn’t finish some of those drives in the red zone.”
Bryant scored a first-quarter touchdown on a two-yard run, his tenth of the year, after Tre Lamar sacked Blackman and forced a fumble at the FSU 20. Etienne then ran for a 28-yard touchdown in the second quarter and Alex Spence added a 26-yard field goal before the half.
Hunter Renfrow led the Tigers in receiving with four catches for 35 yards, and Etienne led the team in rushing with 97 yards on the ground.
As the Seminoles lined up in Clemson territory with 6:46 to play in the fourth quarter, down by just three, the fans in Memorial Stadium were uneasy, to say the least. Then Smith’s interception and Etienne’s touchdown quickly turned things around and sealed a trip to Charlotte for an ACC Championship showdown against No. 7 Miami.
“The defense gave us the ball in great field position, and it was on us to put the game away,” Etienne said. “We went out there locked in and we got the job done.”
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