September 17, 2011
Clemson 38, Auburn 24.
When you've won 17 games in a row, at some point, you start to take certain things for granted. Before today, Auburn's thing was a certain resiliency in the face of a porous defense: The Tigers came in with ten straight wins when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter, and seven straight when giving up more than 30 points. They'd already emerged unscathed from a pair of wild, improbable shootouts in their first two games. When the going gets tough, Auburn gets to doing whatever it has to do — an onside kick, goal-line stop — to win.
Eventually, there was bound to be a day when the going got tough and just kept going. Today was that day. And it went exactly the way it was always bound to: With the bend-don't-break defense shattering all over the field.
After a slow start, Clemson embarked on eight consecutive drives covering at least 60 yards, five of them for touchdowns. It racked up well over 600 yards of total offense. It moved the first-down sticks 32 times. It made the Tiger offense a victim of another double-digit deficit in time of possession. A sophomore quarterback in his first notable start, Tajh Boyd, lit up the Auburn secondary for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns passing, with no turnovers; 155 yards and two scores went in the direction of a true freshman, Sammy Watkins, who made breaking out on national television against the defending national champion look like child's play. At one point, Clemson converted ten consecutive third-down conversions, and was still able to tack on a field goal when they finally came up short.
In the fourth quarter, the quarter Auburn owned throughout its winning streak, it held the ball for a grand total of nine plays. Clemson ran twice as many on its last drive alone, an 18-play, 73-yard march that zapped the final nine-and-a-half minutes from the clock while Auburn's offense watch futilely from the sideline, having failed to score a touchdown over an entire half for the first time since October 2009. For one set of Tigers, it was a spectacular coming-out party. For the other, it was just another day at the office, without the usual happy ending.
But, as it was when Auburn was winning, the ending is all anyone cares about. After the high drama of the last two weeks — and the fireworks of the first three quarters, courtesy of Boyd, Watkins and Auburn running back Michael Dyer — today's slow-bleed finish was an anticlimax. But it was also a dose of reality: For a rebuilding outfit whose "big win" isn't looking very good right now, and that still has five more ranked opponents waiting on the conference schedule, all of the preseason projections of doom are beginning to look even more likely than they did then.