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Clemson vs. Florida State: Tigers Pull Away from the Noles Late to Win the ACC Atlantic

Clemson defeats FSU to win the ACC Atlantic Division

NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson
Tavien Feaster carries the ball against Florida State.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson returned to Death Valley to take on Florida State in a game that would send the Tigers to the ACC Championship game with a Tiger victory. Preseason hype on FSU had them vying for the national championship, but something beyond the loss of their starting QB in the season opener has affected the Noles this year, and they came into Death Valley with an uncharacteristic 3-5 record. Given the talent on their team, however, no one should have come into this game expecting the Noles to just roll over and give the Tigers the win.

FSU won the toss and deferred, and Travis Etienne returned the kickoff to the 15. The Tiger possession started with a false start and an incomplete pass. Tavien Feaster got good yardage on second down but on third down, Kelly Bryant was sacked when RT Sean Pollard was burned by the FSU DE’s speed rush. The Tigers punted and FSU took over at about their 40. The Tiger defense forced a 3rd and 8, and held, forcing the Noles to punt.

Ray-Ray McCloud had a good, although a somewhat dangerous return, as he caught it with an FSU defender right on top of him but managed to get 7 yards, setting up the offense at the 21. Bryant had a nice 2nd down run for 16 yards. On 3rd and 3, Hunter Renfrow converted it. The 1st down play was ugly as Adam Choice got stopped for a 5 yard loss. Bryant did pretty much the same thing on 2nd down, setting up 3rd and 20. Bryant scrambled but couldn’t get the 20 yards. The Tigers punted and put the Noles on their own 10. FSU got a 1st down on running by Cam Akers. On 2rd and 4, Tiger LB Tre Lamar sacked QB James Blackman and forced a fumble that he then recovered at the Tiger 20. The Tigers got a first down to just inside the 10 on 3 plays. Etienne got 3 yards on 1st down and Bryant got it to the 2. On 3rd down Bryant pushed his way into the end zone to put the Tigers up 7-0.

The Tigers had good coverage on the kickoff, giving FSU the ball on the 14. The Noles got a first down on the legs of Akers. The next set of downs didn’t go too well for the Noles and Blackman was sacked again on 3rd down by Austin Bryant. McCloud fair caught the punt and put the Tiger offense on their 26 yard line after a holding penalty by the Tigers. A couple of short passes and a run by Bryant got a first down. On the next 3rd down Bryant threw a bullet to Diondre Overton for a 1st down. On the next play, he threw another strike, this time to Renfrow who uncharacteristically didn’t control the ball to the ground, with perhaps a bit of help from FSU safety Derwin James. On 3rd down the Tigers got the benefit of a pass interference call to get a fresh set of downs. A Bryant run and a short catch by Deon Cain gave the Tigers another 1st down. A Feaster run and Amari Rodgers catch gave the Tigers 3rd and inches, which Bryant then converted. The Tigers then imploded as Bryant and Feaster didn’t connect on the handoff and FSU recovered the ball at the 3 yard line. The FSU defender played the option hard to Feaster and Bryant probably wanted to keep it. My thinking was to look for play action off that later in the game.

The Clemson defense stopped a 1st down run and 2nd down pass to force 3rd and 9. The Tigers’ Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins got to Blackman and forced a fumble but FSU recovered and got it out of the end zone. The Noles punted and McCloud had a 39 yard return. On the 1st down play, Etienne took it untouched to the end zone from 28 yards out to put the Tigers up 14-0. Good blocking from TE Milan Richard and G Taylor Hearn made that one look easy.

Florida State v Clemson
Travis Etienne takes it in after good blocks by the Tiger line.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The FSU possession started at the 25 after a touchback. Tiger DT Albert Huggins sacked Blackman on 1st down and Austin Bryant blocked the pass on 2nd down. A 3rd down run didn’t get enough yardage, so the Noles punted and the Tigers took over at their 30. On 3rd and 5, a face mask penalty gave Clemson a 1st down. On the next play, a beautifully executed fake toss then pass to TE D.J. Greenlee gained 32 yards. A couple of plays later the Tigers averted disaster when they recovered a fumble on the same play that resulted in a fumble earlier (mainly because the FSU defenders wanted to pick the ball up and run with it rather than just recover it). Hopefully the Clemson coaches would realize that FSU had seen something on film on that play and not go back to it. The Tigers settled for an Alex Spence FG to make the score 17-0.

With about a minute and a half left in the half, FSU took over at their 16. The Noles completed a couple of passes but on 3rd and 3, the Tigers blocked the pass, forcing them to punt with 36 seconds left. A good roll on the punt gave the Tigers the ball at their 14 where they downed the ball to end the 1st half.

The Noles started the 2nd half on their 25. Ferrell was (questionably, in my opinion) called for a roughing the passer that gave FSU a first down when their offense seemed ready to go 3-and-out. The Noles moved on down the field with some nice passes. On 3rd and 1 at the Tiger 21, the Tiger defensive line stopped the Noles with a big (in importance) tackle for loss. FSU then went for it on 4th down but couldn’t convert it even though the FSU receiver was wide open and would have scored. The Tigers didn’t do much with their possession and punted. An FSU player was ejected for targeting Tiger CB Ryan Carter on the return, and should have been called for taunting as well.

FSU took over on their 16 yard line but the Tiger defense forced the 3-and-out. On the punt, Isiah Simmons committed a stupid personal foul penalty with a late hit, pushing the Tigers back to the 29. Etienne took a flare pass 16 yards to the 45 on first down. Tee Higgins converted a 2nd and 8 to get another first down. On the next third down, Bryant was indecisive on a rollout and got sacked, forcing the Tigers to punt.

FSU started their possession with some good quick throws to keep Blackman away from the claws of the Tiger pass rush. A pass interference penalty on Trayvon Miullen helped the Noles keep moving. FSU tried to keep their ground game involved but the Clemson front seven were having nothing of it. On 3rd an 2, Mullen committed another pass interference and give the Noles another first down. at the Clemson 47. On the next play, FSU completed a pass down to the Tiger 3 yard line. FSU then punched it in to close the score to 17-7.

The Tigers started at the 20 after the kickoff. A good Bryant run on 2nd and 6 netted a first down. The 3rd quarter ended with the Tigers at 3rd and 10 on their 21 yard line. Bryant couldn’t get the throw to McCloud and Clemson had to punt. FSU started at their 42 and Blackman was sacked on 1st down. The Tiger pass rushers almost got him again on 2nd down. The Noles nearly got a touchdown on busted coverage but their WR couldn’t quite make the diving catch. The pass coverage on that play was really ugly. FSU then punted as the Tigers avoided a disaster. It was time for the Clemson offense to make a statement.

Etienne had a couple of runs to get a 1st down. Cain dropped an easy catch on 1st down that he probably would have taken to the end zone. More good runs by Etienne kept the clock running. On 3rd and 7, Bryant got loose for 17 yards to keep the drive going. On the next 3rd down, Bryant overthrew Renfrow and they had to punt again. FSU had some good plays to move down the field. They then executed a trick play perfectly and the Tiger secondary collapsed, leaving the TE wide open for a 60 yard TD. The Tigers were making a statement, just not the right one. It was “We aren’t going to bother covering anyone going down the sideline.” It was a 17-14 game. FSU smelled blood.

The Tiger drive started well but Bryant fumbled the ball and FSU recovered it at the Tiger 40 with 6:46 remaining. But on the next play Van Smith picked off Blackman and returned it to the FSU 44 yard line. Could the Clemson offense seal the game? On 2nd and 10 Mr. Clutch (yes, Renfrow) came through with another 1st down catch. The clocked ticked down below 5 minutes. Etienne then had an awesome second effort run to the FSU 5 yard line. On the next play he muscled his way down to the 1/2 yard line with a pile of orange jerseys pushing him forward. A review confirmed that he hadn’t gotten in. There was no question about it on the next play, as Etienne got cleanly into the end zone with just over three minutes left. The offense had made the statement they needed to make. Now it was the Tiger defense’s turn.

FSU took over on their 27. First and second down didn’t amount to much for the Noles, setting up 3rd and 9. A.J. Terrell knocked the ball away and the Noles had to go for it on 4th down. They didn’t convert. The Tiger defense had joined their offense in making their statement as a team that could win a close 4th quarter game. Adam Choice ripped off a 12-yard run to move the sticks and keep the clock moving. Another 6-yard run by Choice pretty much sealed the deal, but on 2nd down, Choice fought his way into the end zone to make the score 31-14. It was closer than it looked, especially in the 3rd quarter, but when the Tigers needed to put the game away, they did.

As I warned at the beginning, underestimating FSU with their talent level, would be a huge mistake. The Tigers flirted with making that mistake, but ultimately got it together on both sides of the ball and won the game. The Tigers wrapped up the ACC Atlantic Division championship with the win.

If you want the very best in-depth coverage of the game and previews of next week’s game against The Citadel. Check back here at STS over the next few days. Let me end with a sincere “Thank you!” to the men and women of this country who serve and have served in our armed forces. Y’all are some of the very best people to call yourselves Americans.