Clemson provides answers in first real test of season, knocking off Auburn 14-6
CLEMSON — The week began, and almost immediately, Kelly Bryant knew there were questions. Questions lingered about how he might play against a Power five team in his second career start. Questions remained about how Clemson as a whole might show up under a national spotlight in its first true test of the 2017 season. Outsiders wondered how Brent Venables’ defense might handle a new Auburn offensive coordinator, a new Auburn quarterback and a new running back Clemson did not see a year ago.
Saturday night, there were answers.
No. 3 Clemson knocked off No. 13 Auburn 14-6 in front of 80-thousand plus on hand at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, making a major statement on the national stage that the 2017 Tigers expect there to be no drop off from the 2016 national championship team that featured marquee faces who have since departed from the program.
The sparkplug of Clemson’s first real test of the season: Bryant, the junior quarterback.
As the night opened and hip hop music blared over Memorial Stadium’s loudspeakers during pregame warmups, Bryant grinned and danced as he joked around with his teammates on the field. He looked loose. He oozed with confidence. It proved to be the difference maker in what became an up-and-down night for the Clemson offense.
Clemson struggled to find any sense of rhythm while the first quarter unfolded, as the ACC Tigers opened their first four drives of the game with two punts, a Ray-Ray McCloud fumble and a missed field goal. With each mental miscue or sloppy decision, Death Valley grew quieter. Auburn, meanwhile, took a 6-0 lead with two field goals early into the second quarter under new quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who finished the night 13-24 with 79 yards.
But Bryant bailed out his struggling team, impressing with both his often-criticized arm and his speedy legs. The junior quarterback completed 19 of 29 passes for 181 yards and he rushed for a team-high 58 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Clemson took its first lead of the night after he returned from being shaken up by an injury in the second quarter and marched Clemson to a touchdown featuring 12 plays, 88 yards and 48 seconds left on the clock for the half. He threw a 20-yarder to wide receiver Deon Cain, then connected with McCloud on a 29-yard pass that McCloud snagged over his shoulder in traffic. To cap it off, Bryant ran into the end zone for three yards.
About three minutes into the third quarter, he took off for 27 yards into the end zone — his second rushing touchdown of the night to put Clemson ahead 14-6 as the stadium came alive. Backed by its dominant defense, Clemson never relinquished the lead.
As Clemson turns its attention to Louisville next week, its first road trip of the game, questions still linger. Punter Will Spiers, despite Bryant’s play, had to punt the ball six times. Clemson fumbled twice and the Tigers got off to a slow start — something they cannot afford to repeat on the road against reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals. But if Saturday was Bryant and Clemson’s first true test, consider it one they passed. For a night that had so much on the line in terms of Clemson’s identity, Dabo Swinney’s team took a major step in the right direction.