TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Dabo Swinney ran toward the tunnel after Clemson took yet another game down to the heart-stopping last second — this time against rival Florida State. His shirt was drenched in sweat, but his smile, well, his smile said everything. He beamed while he high-fived fans and screamed, “How about that win!”
Swinney finally beat Florida State 37-34 in Doak Campbell Stadium, an accomplishment that had eluded the Clemson coach his entire career. But more than that, his undefeated team survived on the road Saturday night to stay right in the College Football Playoff hunt. Was it perfect? No. Did it have to be? No. For the fifth time this season, Clemson found a way to make one more play in another close game.
“There’s got to be something more to it than just: Well, they got lucky,” Swinney said. “That’s your heart. That’s your guts. That’s your toughness. It’s your whole culture of your program. That’s what it takes to win those type of games. It’s a belief. It’s just an undeniable will to win, and it’s special to be a part of.”
Undoubtedly, Clemson went through its schedule a season ago without as many close calls. But these Tigers have embraced the close calls, thriving at a time when most others stopped believing. But the mind-set makes sense, considering how much Clemson has used being counted out as motivation.
The mantra last season? Well, nobody believed in Clemson. Though the Tigers have been favored in every game but one this year, they are still trying to find ways to make everybody else believe in them. It sure would be easier to give themselves some breathing room. But in a way, maybe Clemson doesn’t want to.
It’s a strange bit of reverse psychology, but Clemson clearly relishes the moments when it needs to make a play to win.
“I don’t know what to say other than this group just believes they’re going to win,” Swinney said. “I never thought we’d lose, but, boy, we make it hard sometimes. There’s just something to be said about it. They love each other, they care about each other. They just believe somebody’s going to make a play.”
In a wild fourth quarter that featured three lead changes, Clemson got the ball with 3:23 left, trailing 34-29. Offensive players looked at each other in the huddle. Deshaun Watson took the lead, but they all told each other, “Let’s be special. Let’s do this. This is us.”
Two years ago, Clemson lost a devastating overtime game in Tallahassee that it probably should have won. Running back Wayne Gallman remembered the scene in the locker room afterward: players crying, crushed at the loss.
Watson refused to let that scene play out again. With steadiness and poise, he delivered a 25-yard pass to Jordan Leggett on first down. Four plays later, he found Leggett again for a 34-yard touchdown pass and the lead.
“Just a great play call. We’ve seen it all game. We came back to it in one of our play calls and knew it was going to work against this defense. We called it at the right time. We executed it and hit it, and the players made big-time plays in big-time moments. That’s what we’re about. Everyone kept believing and having faith.”
But Watson was not done, delivering the crucial two-point conversion pass to Mike Williams to give the Tigers a three-point lead.
The defense took over and put the pressure on Florida State QB Deondre Francois. The game ended with back-to-back sacks and too many hold-your-breath moments to count.
But the outcome could have easily been different. Watson threw two interceptions that Florida State converted into 14 points, and the Tigers allowed too many big runs from Dalvin Cook.
Watson called his interceptions “bonehead decisions that I shouldn’t have made.
“I tried to be greedy and tried to force throws, but it’s something else to learn from.”
Going back to the season opener against Auburn, Clemson has won five games by a touchdown or less. The Tigers have been taking heat all season for being in close games, because the natural expectation was for them to pick up where they left off last season and start rolling all over again.
But this is a new team with new players and the ability to survive when it feels like they should not. Whether they can keep living on the edge and continue to win remains to be seen. But with only four undefeated Power 5 teams left, it might not matter how close Clemson plays its games.
If it wins — whether by 1 point or 30 points — then it makes the College Football Playoff as an unbeaten Power 5 champion. Swinney and his players know it, too.
“At the end of the day it’s about getting the ‘W’ no matter what the scoreboard says,” Watson said.
Clemson finds a way to win (again) – ESPN