The 2015 season started with the Tigers ranked 12th in the nation. It wasn’t the highest start in the rankings for a Dabo squad (the 2013 team started the season ranked 8th) but with Deshaun Watson running the show after his electric Freshman season, and some of the best skill position players in the nation, Clemson was one of the more interesting squads in the nation.
While the offense looked like it was poised to put up huge numbers, Brent Venables’s rebuilt defense seemed like the limiting factor for this team. How was he going to replace all time greats like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett on the defensive line? Stephone Anothony was key in the Venables rebuild at linebacker, and now he was off to the NFL. Robert Smith was a calm, steady presence in the back end of the defense, and he was being replaced by a converted wide receiver.
Most people had 2016 circled as the season where everything would come together for the Tigers and they would have a legit shot at the National Championship. 2015 looked promising, but the questions surrounding Watson’s knee and the Venables defense made an undefeated season seem, unlikely.
The key lesson to take out of the 2015 season is to never, ever, ever, bet against Deshaun Watson or Brent Venables.
Game 1 - (12) Clemson vs Wofford
This game was supposed to be the season warm up for the Tigers. Get the starters some reps, let Deshaun shake off some rust and get comfortable, and then shut it down. I was at a Bachelor party in New Orleans with other Clemson fans, and we piled into a bar at 11am to catch the game.
We had just settled in and ordered our first drinks of the day when this happened....
One of my friends had a connection in the Clemson training staff and fired off a text to check on Mike’s status, while the rest of us nervously speculated about a stinger or a possible concussion. After a few minutes, my buddy sat his phone down and said “it doesn’t look good, everyone’s worried.”
I don’t remember anything else about that game, other than Clemson won, Mike got hurt, and I pounded down several drinks trying to shake off the previous night’s fun.
Later, the news broke, Mike Williams was out for the remainder of the season with a broken neck. It looked like a devastating blow to Clemson’s ACC hopes, and the glimmer of CFP hope was all but extinguished.
Clemson 49 - Wofford 10
Game 2 - (12) Clemson vs Appalachian State
Clemson’s second warm up game was against always dangerous Appalachian State (they ended up going 11-2 that season), led by Scott Satterfield. Clemson was the prohibitive favorite entering the game, but I’d watched too many Clemson games to feel 100% comfortable going into the game.
I’ll always remember this as the Wayne Gallman game. The Wayne Train broke a 13-yard run in the 2nd quarter for a touchdown to give Clemson a 17-0 game, but a holding call took it off the board. This didn’t set well with Wayne so he took the next hand-off and rumbled for a 23-yard touchdown. In and of its self, that wasn’t memorable, but at the end of the run, Gallman destroyed an App State defender waiting for him at the goal line.
I believe my exact words were, “Oh, shit!”
Clemson 41 - Appalachian State - 10
Game 3 - Clemson @ Louisville
This was the first test for the Tigers. Going on the road to play a Bobby Petrino team is never easy and this game was too close for comfort.
The Clemson offense couldn’t get out of its own way. Deshaun had one of his first not so great games as a Tiger, throwing for just 199 yards 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Clemson was held to 7 points in the first half and went into the locker room down 7-10.
The second half saw more offensive struggles for the Tigers. Wayne Gallman led the way with 139 yards on 24 carries, but Clemson couldn’t put the ball in the endzone. Luckily for Clemson, neither could Louisville. Kyle Bolin led the Cardinal’s attack, while a certain freshman named Lamar Jackson sat on the bench (he had 1 completion for 15 yards).
In a harbinger of things to come later in the season, it looked like Clemson had the game firmly in hand after a Jordan Leggett touchdown and a Greg Huegel field goal gave the Tigers a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter. That lasted only a few seconds. Louisville's Traveon Samuel fielded a high, looping Huegel kick at the goal line, broke the first line of the Clemson return team, hit the gas, and didn’t stop until he reached the endzone.
Clemson failed to move the ball on offense, and Louisville drove the ball into field goal range, only to see Cardinal kicker John Wallace shank a 38-yard field goal. Louisville would get one more shot at the end of the game, but a hail mary attempt ended up in the arms of Jadar Johnson.
The Tigers escaped on the road, even with Watson not playing up to his usual high standard.
Clemson 20 - Louisville 17
Game 4 - (12) Clemson vs (6) Notre Dame (BYOG)
I’m not sure I need to say much about this game. It was Clemson vs Notre Dame in prime time during a hurricane.
The Tigers jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter on two Watson touchdown passes, and took that lead to the locker room. They tacked on a 21-yard Watson touchdown run to extend the lead to 21-3 in the 3rd quarter. It looked like Clemson was going to run away with the win...
Then Notre Dame’s offense woke up.
The Fighting Irish started the 4th quarter with a 56-yard touchdown by CJ Prosise. Clemson looked like it stopped the bleeding with a 35-yard Hugel field goal, pushing the lead to 24-9, but Notre Dame marched down the field, with DeShone Kizer polishing off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown. Clemson couldn’t answer on offense, and gave Notre Dame the opportunity to tie the game with a touchdown and a 2 point conversion.
The touchdown part of the equation came on a 1-yard Torii Hunter touchdown reception with 7 seconds remaining, setting up one of the key plays in Clemson football history.
Notre Dame decided to challenge the Clemson line with a Kizer run to the right. Kevin Dodd set the edge, Boulware and Watkins closed the hole, and the good guys came away with the win. After the game, Dabo gave one of the best post game interviews in college football, and the Tigers were on their way.
For those of you with more time on your hands....
Game 5 - (6) Clemson vs Georgia Tech
We’re getting into the games that I vaguely remember. I’m pretty sure I watched this one at a burger joint in College Station. Looking over the box score though, and I have a confession, I forgot how important Wayne Gallman was to this team. Deshaun rightfully gets the headlines, but Gallman did a good bit of the heavy lifting in 2015, and this game was no exception, with Wayne put up 115 yards and 2 touchdowns in 13 carries.
The Wayne Train came out hot in this one and took a 66-yard carry to the house in the first 2 minutes of the game. Huegel hit a field goad, Gallman cashed in his second touchdown on a 1-yard run, and then Peake added a safety that I totally forgot about to put Clemson up 19-3 at the end of the first quarter, and the game was essentially over.
The Tigers would stretch the lead to 40-10 on 2 Leggett touchdown receptions and a 35 yard Zac Brooks (remember him?) 35-yard run midway through the 3rd quarter and then cruised to the finish. This game was a needed easy W after Louisville and Notre Dame.
Clemson 43 - Georgia Tech 24
Game 6 - (5) Clemson vs Boston College
This is one of those weird games where Clemson didn’t play well, but still ended up comfortably handling Boston College. BC shut down both Wayne and Watson on the ground with their highly rated defense, putting the game on Waton’s arm. He threw for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns, but forced some throws and ended up with 2 picks as well. Clemson went into the half with a 17-10 lead.
The Tigers defense clamped down in the 3rd, shutting out the Eagles, and the offense put up another 10 points on a Huegel kick and a 51-yard Artavis Scott touchdown reception (shout out to Artavis for a 161 yard, 10 catch, 1 TD performance) extending the lead to 27-10 and essentially ending the contest.
The Eagles did a decent job of executing their game plan, and forced Clemson to be a one-dimensional passing team, yet it didn’t matter. That was a nice feeling.
Clemson 34 - BC 17
Game 6 - (6) Clemson @ Miami
I watched this game while getting ready for my sister’s wedding, and man, what a game. This was the first time Clemson flexed their muscles and embarrassed a team. In fact, the Tigers beat Miami so thoroughly that they fired their head coach a few days after the game.
What’s funny is, although Deshaun was deadly accurate in this game (15-19), Clemson did most of their damage on the ground. Watson only threw for 143 yards and a touchdown. This was big boy, smash mouth football, and any preseason questions about the offense line were answered, at least on this day.
Gallman ran for 118 yards and a touchdown. Deshaun ran for 98 yards and a touchdown. Tyshon Dye pitched in 52 yards on 8 carries. C.J. Fuller added another 42 yards on 8 carries (wow, Dye and Fuller, so incredibly sad). Zac Brooks chipped in 22 yards and a touchdown. Finally, Kelly Bryant came off the bench and ran for 59 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Tigers punched THE U in the mouth and they quit. The score was 42 - 0 at half.
Clemson 58 - Miami 0
Game 7 - (3) Clemson @ NC State
I think this is the game where I started to allow myself to think about the CFP. NC State was a solid squad. They had some serious fire power on offense with Jacoby Brissett, Nyheim Hines, and Jaylen Samuels (all current NFL players) but they didn’t have enough to bother the Tigers.
Watson was on fire in this game, going 22/30 for 383 yards, 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 54 yards and a touchdown. Not to be outdone, Gallman went off as well, running for 172 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. NC State baited Clemson into a shootout, and it didn’t matter. The Tigers had more bullets.
For the second time this year, however, the Tigers gave up a 100-yard kick return, this time to Nyheim Hines, once again foreshadowing tragedies to come later in the season.
Brissett ran threw for 254 yards and 3 touchdowns, but the Wolfpack didn’t have enough fire power, even on their home field, to compete with the Tigers in the 2nd half. Clemson needed this confidence boost with Dabo nemesis Florida State looking to derail the Tigers magical season the next week.
Clemson 56 - North Carolina State 41
Game 8 - (3) Clemson vs (17) Florida State
This is it. This is the game that gave me the most heartburn. My wife and I drove non-stop from College Station to Clemson 2 years prior to watch the Noles stomp out the Tigers in the first quarter. I sat stunned in front of the television in 2014 when the Tigers did everything in their power to lose in Tallahassee.
Clemson was at home and favored. That made the game even more terrifying.
When Dalvin Cook broke off a 75-yard touchdown in the first minute of the game, my worst fears were realized. The defense figured it out, but the offense could only muster 6 points against a nasty Florida State defense featuring Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey. The seemingly endless supply of points Clemson tapped into the previous two games against Miami and NC State had dried up. The Noles took a 10-6 lead into the locker room. I was a mess.
The second half got off to a better start. Watson found Deon Cain for a 38-yard touchdown 5 minutes into the third quarter, putting the Tigers up 13-10. Then the Noles drove back down the field with Cook, setting up a 41-yard Roberto Aguayo field goal to tie the game. The Noles wouldn’t score again, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was now a race between the final whistle and my alcohol tolerance. It was too close to call.
Halfway through the 4th quarter, Greg Huegel broke the deadlock with a 34-yard field goal to put Clemson up 3. If anything, kicking a field goal made me more nervous. The Tigers were one Dalvin Cook run away from losing. Thankfully, that run never happened. Instead, Wayne Gallman decided to end things with 2 minutes and 34 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter with a 25-yard touchdown run.
I’m told my celebration involved delivering a running chest bump to my wife and then riding an imaginary horse around the living room while yelling Wayne Train.
This was the final piece of the 2015 puzzle. Clemson managed to grind out a tough win over Jimbo and Noles. Dalvin Cook went off from 194 yards and a touchdown in 21 carries, but Watson and Gallman wouldn’t be defeated. Deshaun threw for 297 and a touchdown and ran for 107 yards. Gallman managed to grind out 103 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Jordan Leggett led all receivers with 6 catches for 101 yards.
The defense was just as impressive. B.J. Goodson had the game of his Clemson career, recording 9 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Adrian Baker came up with a key interception. Cook got the Noles 1 long touchdown, but even though he chewed up yardage the rest game, the defense kept him out of the endzone.
Clemson 23 - FSU 13
Clemson clinches ACC Atlantic!
Game 9 - (1) Clemson @ Syracuse
This had “trap game” written all over it. The newly minted number 1 Tigers, fresh off a win over hated rival Florida State in an electric game in Death Valley travel north to the worst venue in major college football...the concrete airplane hangar covered with a thin layer of AstroTurf otherwise known as the Carrier Dome.
This wasn’t a good Syracuse team, in fact, it was a bad Syracuse team, and it looked like Clemson was going to knock them out early. Watson and Peake hooked up on a long pass on the first play of the game and Gallman finished off the drive on the next play. Clemson turned Cuse over, drove down the field, and Watson punched the ball in for a quick 14-0 lead.
Then things went sideways.
Cuse established a running game featuring walk-on quarterback Zach Mahoney running the option, and the defense didn’t have any answers. Ervin Phillips took his only touch of the game for a 28-yard touchdown run. Mahoney followed it up on the next drive with another rushing touchdown, and the game that looked to be a foregone conclusions was suddenly in doubt. The 17 people in the Carrier Dome went from apathetic to mildly interested.
Watson stopped the bleeding with another touchdown pass to Peake and the 1st quarter ended 21-14.
Things calmed down after the 1st quarter, the defense adjusted, and Clemson settled in for a slog of a game. Clemson put up a 10 spot in the 2nd quarter on a 40 yard Deon Cain TD catch, and all Syracuse could muster was a field goal, sending the game to the half at 31-17.
The second half was a slog. The Clemson offense was stuck in 2nd gear, and didn’t score in the 3rd quarter. The Syracuse running attack continued to bother the defense, with Mahoney punching in a 3rd quarter defense, the score was 31-24 heading into the 4th, and at least 9 more Cuse fans trickled into the building in hopes of seeing an upset.
Luckily, that upset never materialized. Clemson took control of the game on the ground, Huegel hit 2 field goals and the defense limited Syracuse to 1 field goal in the quarter to close out the game. What looked like a blowout ended in a frustrating 10-point win.
Clemson 37 - Syracuse 27
Game 10 - (1) Clemson vs Wake Forest
The Tigers needed an easy W on Senior Day after two tough games, and Wake obliged. Clemson offense blitzed them in the first quarter with a 20 point outburst on a Watston TD run, a 44-yard Peake TD catch, and a Deon Cain TD reception. Unlike Syracuse, the defense held up, and it was all over in the first 15 minutes.
Wake managed to pull 7 points back in the 2nd quarter, but Clemson responded by putting another 10 points on the board on a 47-yard Germone Hopper touchdown and a buzzer beating 40 yard field goal by Huegel, sending the Tigers to the locker room with a commanding 30-7 lead.
The second half was essentially a race to end the game as quickly as possible. Clemson’s offense wasn’t interested in scoring, only managing to tack on 3 points in the half. Wake added a garbage time TD in the 4th quarter, but never came close to threatening.
Clemson 33 - Wake Forest 13
Game 11 (1) Clemson @ South Carolina
The only thing standing between Dabo, Clemson, and an undefeated regular season was a trip to Columbia to take on Spurrier and U of SC. Dabo had yet to win in the armpit of the South, and although the Spurrier run at South Carolina was out of gas because Steve resigned in October, I was still slightly nervous (but outwardly confident of course).
The first quarter ended in a 0-0 with both teams playing solid defense. I was watching this game at a bar and remember transitioning from beer to liquor in the 2nd quarter in hopes of calming my nerves changing the momentum of the game. It worked. First Deshaun broke a 5-yard touchdown run and a few minutes later hit Deon Cain for a 55-yard touchdown. The Gamecocks managed to put an Elliot Fry field goal on the board late to break the shutout, but the Tigers took a somewhat comfortable 14-3 lead into the half. It didn’t look like the Cocks could score enough to pull the upset.
It looked like Clemson was going to put the game away early in the 3rd quarter when Watson flew into the endzone on a 30-yard run to put Clemson up 21-3. Then the U of SC offense figured some stuff out. Deebo Samuel snagged a 7-yard Perry Orth pass for a touchdown to keep the game in doubt. Clemson responded with a 4-yard CJ Fuller run to extend the lead back to 28-10. I had relaxed a little but Pharoh Cooper erased the Fuller touchdown and pulled South Carolina back into the game at 28-17.
U of SC started the 4th quarter with a 1-yard Shon Carson touchdown run cutting the lead to 28-25 and if I recall correctly, I switched from mixed drinks to shots at this point. Watson responded with his 3rd touchdown run of the game to once again push out the lead to 34-25 (missed extra point) and I took another deep breath. The Clemson D pulled their stuff together and held South Carolina on the next drive. The offense drove the ball, ate up clock and settled for a 36-yard Huegel field goal with 1:22 left to seemingly ice the game.
And yet the U of SC offense drove the ball down the field again. Long before Jimbo tried to make the box score more respectable by scoring a meaningless late touchdown, SCAR scored a meaningless touchdown on an 11-yard Shon Carson touchdown reception with 1 second left on the clock to make the final score a classic, not-as-close-at-it-appeared, 37-32. The onside kick was merely a formality, and Clemson won in Williams-Brice for the first time in 8 years, but not with the dominant blowout victory many still vengeful fans wanted.
In a scene that would play out several times over the next few years, the Gamecocks walked away claiming the moral victory, while Clemson walked away with the actual victory, and a date in the ACC Championship Game with North Carolina.
Clemson 37- South Carolina 32
Regular Season Memories
This is maybe favorite regular season during Clemson and Dabo’s incredible (and ongoing) run. Don’t get me wrong. I attended Clemson from ‘99 to ‘03 and subsequently appreciate every win, but this season was different. I kept waiting for something to go spectacularly wrong, and it never did. Dabo transitioned from a coach that would occasionally choke in a big game, to one of the best big game coaches in the nation.
Deshaun Watson played his way into Clemson history with big game after big game down the stretch. It took him a while to get going, but once he cut it loose he put up an amazing string of games. Watson threw for 4,109 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and also ran for 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games.
Wayne Gallman went from, “pretty good option at running back” to “WAYNE TRAIN...FEED MY BOY.” He ran fro 1,514 yards, 13 touchdowns and helped carry the load early in the season when Watson was still literally getting his legs under him.
Leggett went from “lazy Leggett” to one of the best tight ends in Clemson history. He caught 40 passes for 525 yards and a team leading 8 touchdowns.
Charone Peake finally shook off a frustrating career marred with injuries to take over for the injured Mike Williams as Clemson’s number 1 receiver, collection 50 passes for 716 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Artavis Scott cemented himself in Clemson history with an incredible 93 receptions for 901 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Mitch Hyatt held up better than anyone imagined at left tackle, and the line in general, went from a question mark to solid.
The defense came into the season with a multitude of questions, and answered enough of them to keep Clemson’s record unblemished until the lack of depth finally took its toll.
B.J. Goodson went from career quality backup / special teamer to a tackling machine, recording 108 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions.
The legend of Ben Boulware was born. The hyper-focused linebacker put up 81 tackles, 7.5 tfls, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and an infectious energy that would help lead the 2016 team to a National Championship.
T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse created a formidable safety tandem — easily the most physically imposing in Clemson history. Green was 2nd on the team in tackles with 95 and Kearse came through with another 62 tackles.
The Lawson/Dodd defensive end combo transitioned from solid contributors off the bench to beasts. Dodd racked up 62 tackles, 24 TFLs, and 12.5 sacks. Lawson, contributed another 59 tackles, 24.5 TFLs and 12.5 sacks while each were drafted in the first 2 rounds that spring.
Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley provided two lock down corners that allowed Venables to unleash the rest of his defense.
Finally, Carolos Watkins, DJ Reader, and some 5* freshman Christian Wilkins came together to form a defensive tackle combination that terrorized interior lines, in a preview of Clemson teams to come.
Sadly, this is a post about the best team to never win a Championship, but we’ll get to that later next week.