Clemson didn’t let its first loss turn into two. Instead, the Tigers wrapped up one championship, assured themselves of playing for another – and made a case for a shot at the biggest one of all.
Deshaun Watson rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another score, and Clemson bounced back from its first loss of the season by clinching a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game and beating Wake Forest 35-13 on Saturday night.
“Coming in this week, we understood that last week didn’t define us, and our goals are still in front of us,” Watson said. “So we’ve just got to keep preparing each week, preparing each day, to go out there and earn it.”
Wayne Gallman rushed for a season-high 161 yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yarder on fourth-and-inches that started the scoring for the Tigers (10-1, 7-1 ACC).
The Atlantic Division champions earned a spot in the ACC title game in two weeks in Orlando, justifying their top-four spot in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Playing with something to prove after a last-second loss to Pittsburgh was its first in the regular season in nearly two full years, Clemson reeled off touchdowns on its first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead and then essentially went into protection mode while holding the Demon Deacons to 197 yards – their fewest since the opener against Tulane.
Consider that a huge step forward for a group that gave up 464 yards in the loss to Pitt.
“It was a good week for us to grow our team,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said.
One mitigating factor: A persistent northerly wind that gusted at nearly 30 mph. Clemson’s starters scored four of their five touchdowns with the wind at their backs, but had just 185 total yards in the second and third quarters – when those gusts were in their faces.
Watson was 23 of 33 for 202 yards and sandwiched a pair of short scoring runs around a pretty 15-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams, checking out after Gallman’s second TD with 10:50 to play.
Cade Carney had a 1-yard touchdown run and Mike Weaver kicked field goals of 42 and 23 yards for Wake Forest (6-5, 3-4).
“We got off to an awful start,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “A lot of it was that they played well, and a lot of it is, we just didn’t execute.”
It’s a safe bet the Tigers will once again be the ACC’s highest-ranked team, if for no other reason than Louisville’s loss at Houston certainly will cost the Cardinals their No. 3 ranking. No reason to drop Clemson for a 22-point victory on the road.
The struggles that haunted Wake Forest’s defense late in last week’s loss at Louisville spilled over into the start of this one. The Demon Deacons gave up 34 points in the fourth quarter of that loss, then 21 more in the first quarter against Clemson before they regrouped and allowed just 14 points during the final 45 minutes.