CLEMSON — Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris wasn’t worried about his players’ emotional well-being heading to Boston College – until he watched them go through a ho-hum, pregame warm-up session.
“Something wasn’t right,” Morris recalled Monday.
Maybe not early on, but the 15th-ranked Tigers took control of things right before halftime in a 45-31 victory over the Eagles. Not that anyone would blame Morris for his concerns, especially given the team’s recent history of bouncing back from big defeats.
Clemson (4-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) was still reeling from its lone loss at No. 3 Florida State on Sept. 22 as it gave up a two-touchdown lead – and 667 yards of Seminole offense – to fall 49-37
Then late Thursday, the team found out it would travel to Boston without star receiver Sammy Watkins, diagnosed with an abdominal virus that struck him in the middle of the week.
Watkins’ absence further thinned a receiver corps that lost backup Martavis Bryant for two games with a groin injury last week. None of it mattered much to Clemson, which hopes to keep things going against Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2) at Death Valley on Saturday.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd threw for three touchdowns and rushed for another, while receiver DeAndre Hopkins had 11 catches for a school-record 197 yards. The Tigers moved in front for good right before the half on Boyd’s 4-yard scoring pass to Brandon Ford. Two third-quarter touchdowns put the Tigers ahead 38-21 and the Eagles couldn’t recover.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was proud of his players for concentrating on the game, not their struggles. The offense, he said, excelled again without Watkins, while the young defense grew up after Boston College took a 21-17 lead in the second quarter.
“Overall, we improved,” Swinney said. “We found a way to win. It’s just a great job by the whole team in getting it done.”
Receiver Jaron Brown said the players didn’t worry about the things they could not control and called on the depth they had developed during the offseason. “We just wanted to make the necessary adjustments and have other guys step in,” Brown said.
It’s happened before this season. Watkins missed the team’s first two contests, serving a team suspension for an offseason drug arrest. Hopkins set a school record in the team’s opening victory over Auburn with 13 receptions, then tied a record a week later with three TD catches against Ball State.
Morris has spoken with Watkins and said the star sophomore feels better. The coaches are awaiting more blood work to make sure Watkins has recovered from the virus. Morris expects to see Watkins on the field Saturday against a Georgia Tech team that’s given Clemson fits the past few seasons.
The Yellow Jackets are 4-1 over the Tigers since Swinney took over as coach midway through the 2008 season, including beating Clemson in the 2009 ACC championship game.
Georgia Tech ended the Tigers’ 8-0 start a year ago, a defeat Clemson struggled to get past as it ended the regular season on a 1-3 slide. There were plenty of fans who openly wondered if the Florida State loss two weeks ago would lead to a similar free fall.
Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas said this year’s group showed things would be different this season.
“We put last year behind us,” he said. “This is a new team.”
Georgia Tech has its own issues to handle before Saturday. The usual ACC Coastal Division contenders have lost two straight, including last week’s home embarrassment, 49-28, to Middle Tennessee of the Sun Belt Conference.
“We’ve got a big challenge in front of us,” Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson said. “Clemson has a good football team and we have to come out and play a lot harder than we did today, or it could be ugly.”
Morris said Clemson’s showing last week confirmed what he’d thought about his offense – it’s resilient and eager for success. “There wasn’t ever any panic” at again playing without Watkins. The Tigers are second in the ACC in total offense and put up more than 500 yards last week for the third time this season, one off the school record.
Morris recalled how last week all he’d heard was Clemson’s lack of staying power and how it couldn’t handle adversity. His message to his players, he said, was simple and direct.
“It doesn’t always have to be that way,” he said.