CLEMSON, S.C.—Dabo Swinney loves to talk about a “nameless, faceless opponent.” In his eyes, his Clemson team prepares the same way each week for that opaque foe, whether it is Georgia or Georgia Southern.
That theory was tested this week. After all, following last week’s scintillating 38-35 win over then-No. 5 Georgia before a jam-packed Memorial Stadium crowd of 83,500, who came to town but South Carolina State.
These Bulldogs are a member of the FCS. They were coming off a loss to Coastal Carolina. They were 52-point underdogs.
How would Clemson respond?
Pretty well, actually. The No. 4 Tigers rolled to a 38-7 lead in the first half and were never challenged in a 52-13 rout of S.C. State before an announced crowd of 81,428, many of whom scattered to the parking lots in the second half. Clemson is off until its ACC opener Sept. 19 at N.C. State and rolled into its break full of confidence about its consistency and depth.
“This game went like we hoped it would go,” Swinney said. “We took control early. We played 83 people and were really able to improve our football team. It’s the first time in Clemson history we’ve been able to start out 2-0 four years in a row. That’s a credit to our preparation. Our guys have been ready. They played an outstanding game.”
It wasn’t just plug and play, though. Junior cornerback Martin Jenkins admitted the Tigers “started off the week kind of slow,” saying “guys were missing opportunities, not making plays when they should make plays. There wasn’t as much energy on campus or in the locker room as there was for Georgia.” Swinney said the practice might have been the worst of the season to date, which he addressed with the team.
“Tuesday was a bad day,” Swinney said. “Sometimes you’ve got to refocus young people—that was a refocus day.”
That’s exactly what happened.
Wednesday, Clemson rebounded with what Swinney called its best practice of the season, adding excellent work on Thursday and Friday as well.
Twelve minutes into the game, Jenkins’ 52-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Clemson a 17-0 lead, and the Tigers never looked back.
Fellow corner Darius Robinson added a pick-six of his own, marking the first time in program history that Clemson had two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the same game.
There were a few scary moments. Senior tailback Rod McDowell, fresh off a career-high 132-yard effort against Georgia, took a hard hit near the end of the first half and didn’t return, watching the second half from the sidelines.
Swinney said he was being evaluated for a potential concussion but “looked great.”
Tajh Boyd left midway through the second quarter after getting the wind knocked out of him on a hard hit, but he returned for the next series and finished the half.
He and junior backup Cole Stoudt were in good spirits about the moment afterward.
"So dramatic,” Stoudt quipped. “He was rolling around, I'm thinking, is he dead?"
“It’s like the movie Gladiator,” Boyd shot back. “He’s dying? That’s how I felt.”
Stoudt: “Were you floating off the field?”
All kidding aside, Stoudt was impressive in relief of Boyd. He completed 19 of 20 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns, setting a Clemson record for single-game completion percentage.
The previous record-holder, Woody Dantzler, was on Clemson’s sideline as an honorary captain and also led Clemson’s Friday night chapel service.
“I think Cole can be a starter anywhere in the ACC,” Boyd said.
Four quarterbacks threw passes for Clemson: Boyd, Stoudt, freshman Chad Kelly and walk-on Nick Schuessler. Kelly, who is four months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, scared some when he limped off the field. But he said his pain was merely a pinched nerve in his right calf.
Ten Clemson players carried the ball, led by former walk-on C.J. Davidson, who had 63 yards. And 14 Clemson players caught a pass. They were led by redshirt freshman Germone Hopper, who caught six passes for 66 yards, including his first two career touchdowns.
“We know each other so well, the other guys know each other’s tendencies so well, we practice against each other every day with no real live scoreboard, no fans in the stands. You can’t simulate that,” Swinney said. “This is an opportunity to get real tape, not playing against each other, getting a true evaluation.
“It’s a chance for us to knock the rust off a lot of guys. If you’re a young player, you’re really excited to play. The longer it goes you don’t play, it mounts up on you. It’s a chance to shake off these guys, a chance to touch the ball.”
Swinney and Clemson’s critics love to talk about “Clemsoning,” the art of losing a game to an opponent you have no business losing to. Following the Georgia win, Swinney went on an extended rant about changing the conversation, about how his program and the ACC as a whole should be taken seriously.
As Swinney left his press conference, he mentioned Miami’s 21-16 win over Florida and broke into a smile.
“How about that ACC?” Swinney said. “Spunky little old league.”
Then, he threw up Miami’s patented "U" hand sign.
Clemson and Swinney have a way to go before they shed that national reputation—the trip to N.C. State won’t be easy—but for one day, the Tigers showed their stripes are indeed changing.