Needing to play close to a flawless game to challenge the Tigers, the Jackets misplayed coverages, had unfavorable matchups exploited and turned the ball over three times, twice in a first half that ended 52-7 in Clemson’s favor. (Clemson also committed two turnovers in the first half.)
It was the most points scored in a half against Tech in the school’s modern era, surpassing the 48 piled up by Joe Montana and eventual national champion Notre Dame in 1977. The Jackets were picked apart by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, seen as an NFL prospect potentially equal to Montana’s legend status. Playing one series into the second half, Lawrence compiled a stunning stat line: 24-for-32 for 404 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
Tech played to stop two-time ACC player of the year running back Travis Etienne, who was held to 44 yards on 11 carries, his lowest output against a conference opponent since the middle of the 2018 season. On Clemson’s opening drive, the Jackets also stripped him for a fumble recovery after he had not fumbled in 206 consecutive carries, a continuation of the defense’s success with takeaways. It was not nearly enough, however.
“Loaded up to stop the run, and I thought we did that at times, but in doing that, there were some times that we were overcommitting, and had some really explosive plays (as a result),” Collins said. “And the quarterback is really good.”
Tech also was able to intercept Lawrence, ending his streak of passes without an interception at 366, leaving him 13 shy of the ACC record. Under heavy pressure from defensive end Antonneous Clayton, Lawrence’s throw was picked off by cornerback Zamari Walton on a downfield throw to wide receiver Cornell Powell. (Remarkably, the Cartersville High grad has thrown four interceptions in three games against Tech and nine in his other 32 games.)
“He just so happened to throw the ball, and I just tried do what I could to get some points on the board for the team," Walton said of his second interception of his career and season.
That play gave the Jackets the ball at the Clemson 46-yard line with 1:45 left in the first quarter, trailing 17-7. Tech had an opening to cut the deficit to one possession. However, after gaining eight yards on the first play of the drive on a carry by running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the Tigers stuffed the Jackets on the next three plays and regained possession on downs at their 38.
Lawrence took over from there, leading the Tigers on a 62-yard touchdown drive finished with a 34-yard pass to tight end Dallas Allen set up by a fake toss that helped create a wide alley down the middle of the field. With the score, Clemson took a 24-7 lead a little less than three minutes into the second quarter, the beginning of a period of play the likes of which Grant Field has not witnessed in a century -- and perhaps ever.
The combination of the Jackets offense sputtering while taking little time off the clock, Lawrence peppering the Tech defense with darts and Clemson taking advantage of its strength/speed advantages across the field fueled a quarter in which the Tigers outscored Tech 35-0 and outgained the Jackets 286-32. Lawrence fired balls with pinpoint accuracy, connecting with well-covered targets.
“Got some things to clean up and we will,” Collins said.
For the game, Clemson gained 671 yards, also a record for a Tech opponent. Tech’s only score was a 59-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jeff Sims to wide receiver Jalen Camp that briefly tied the score at 7-7 with 6:32 to play in the first quarter. On the next play from scrimmage, Lawrence found wide receiver Amari Rodgers running away from coverage for an 83-yard touchdown pass.
For Tech, it was a complete turn from its 46-27 win over Louisville on Oct. 9, in which the Jackets moved the ball, were effective in the red zone and didn’t turn the ball over while creating three takeaways for the first double-digit win in Collins' tenure.
Collins said that the team did not handle well the success and adulation from that game, a problem that he said also cropped up after the Jackets' season-opening win over Florida State. Asked further, he said that the team had a good week of practice, “but then we get out there and then it doesn’t show up on the field, especially in critical situations.” He cited the 83-yard touchdown to Rodgers, who had an advantageous matchup in coverage against nickel back Kaleb Oliver.
The Jackets were unable to move the ball effectively Saturday, finishing with 204 yards of offense, ending their streak of games with 400 yards of total offense at four. They also turned the ball over three times.
Saturday’s game, played before 11,000, brought with it a potentially significant injury, as well. Freshman right tackle Jordan Williams, who has been an effective part of the offense and started all five games thus far, had to be helped off the field in the fourth quarter and appeared to have suffered an injury to his right knee.