ETN-sanity

Larry Williams, Senior Writer
Tiger Illustrated

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CLEMSON -- Two weeks ago, Dabo Swinney called an offensively-challenged win over Auburn a trip back to 1988.

Clemson went even further back in time at points Saturday against Boston College. For much of the afternoon, the Tigers' offense had a retro 1968 feel as it came up empty time and again.

But leave it to a couple of young backups to restore order, sanity and dominance in the fourth quarter. Freshman Travis Etienne and sophomore Diondre Overton came up big in the final 15 minutes as Clemson broke a 7-7 tie after three quarters to win 34-7, improving to 4-0.

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Getty

"I know there's a myth that we're just supposed to go and kill everybody," Swinney said. "We had to dig down and grit it out. It's great to win games like that."

Clemson is simply not used to utterly tense late-game moments against Boston College. Until Saturday, that seemed like something reserved for the Tommy Bowden era. The Tigers came in a monster favorite after dismantling Louisville, and Eagles coach Steve Addazio came in spouting strange explanations after his team lost at home by 29 to Notre Dame and by 24 to Wake Forest.

So to see this Tigers machine struggling to get out of its own way on offense was a startling sight, even given the crazy nature of college football.

Or maybe it's more accurate to say Clemson was struggling to get in Boston College's way, because the offensive line spent much of this day having grave difficulty protecting quarterback Kelly Bryant.

But after three quarters of excruciating football that brought some boos from the fans who were so delighted and assured coming in, you look at the stats and see Clemson with 342 rushing yards. You see 482 total yards and 27 first downs.

And you see a 27-point victory that seemed unthinkable when the offense was finishing its first three drives of the second half with an interception and two three-and-outs.

You walk away feeling a lot better about things because -- my goodness, Etienne is just that kind of force of nature at this point.

"He's special," said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. "He just keeps earning it every game, just gets better and better.

"Travis, we've got a special one there. He's really growing up in front of our eyes. It's a lot of fun."

Etienne and Overton breathed life into their offense, and the entire stadium. Overton's tip-toeing catch on a third-and-9 jump ball for a 23-yard gain set up Adam Choice's 6-yard touchdown run that put Clemson up 14-7.

And then Etienne took over. His 81-yard touchdown run against Louisville came in garbage time. His 50-yard scoring romp Saturday with 5:41 left was much more important.

On that run, and later a 10-yard touchdown run with 54 seconds left, Etienne made an unequivocal case that he belongs on the field more often.

It was the same violent, determined, explosive running the coaches saw all camp long. And now it was plain to see in front of everyone at Death Valley, as the Louisiana native finished with 113 yards on nine carries.

Bryant, frequently harassed by Boston College's front, finished with 106 yards on the ground to make up for a frustrating day throwing that included two interceptions.

"Kelly hung in there and battled through a little bit of adversity," Swinney said. "This is something we can grow from and continue to move forward."

If you were on another planet the past three weeks and didn't see the offense showing frequent explosiveness, you probably wouldn't have been all that surprised with the way this one went for three quarters.

A ferocious defense spent most of that time carrying the team, much as the 2014 defense did when Deshaun Watson was out. Despite dominating field position, despite its offense living at midfield, Boston College walked away with just seven points on the scoreboard after totaling 238 yards and converting four of 16 third downs.

But just because it looked effortless for so long at Louisville didn't mean it was going to be that way against Boston College, regardless of how much everyone expected it to be over early.

Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell will go into next week trying to get things sorted out for a mammoth road showdown at Virginia Tech, which is capable of giving Clemson's front problems.

Field position can be a big deal, and it was a monstrous deal in this one as Clemson began six of its drives at or inside its own 10-yard line. Senior punter Mike Knoll was Boston College's most valuable player, averaging 42.3 yards on nine punts and putting six inside Clemson's 20.

"Your call sheet is a little shorter when you're backed up like that," Swinney said.

So that explains a lot when assessing a Clemson offense that had plenty of yards through three quarters but just one touchdown to show for it.

Yet it doesn't explain everything. Scott said Boston College was a man-coverage defense 90 percent of the time coming in and threw a curve ball at the Tigers' staff, sitting back in a zone with its defensive backs while sending an array of pressures and stunts that took Scott and Tony Elliott some time to adjust to.

"We told the guys all week it was going to be a physical group," Scott said. "We told them we were going to have to earn it. We didn't execute, and it takes all 11 guys."

In the end, it was Etienne and the running game executing Boston College's worn-down defense. The Tigers ran on all nine plays on the drive Etienne capped with the 50-yard burst. They began that possession on their own 5.

Ray-Ray McCloud returned a punt 56 yards to set up a short-field touchdown to make it 27-7, and after A.J. Terrell picked off a pass the Tigers returned to Etienne.

He went for 6 yards, then 18, then 7. He closed it by twisting and barreling for the 10-yard score that sent fans home happy.

Far more exhausted than anticipated, but happy.

On to Blacksburg.

"There's going to be other tight games where it's going to come down to a few plays," Swinney said.

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