Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams told everyone who would listen that he was bigger, stronger and faster entering 2016 than he was when he topped 1,000 receiving yards two years ago. He made a lot of believers Saturday night at Auburn.
Williams caught nine passes for 174 yards, including a critical back-shoulder grab late in the fourth quarter that should have put the game away, as No. 2 Clemson held on for a hard-fought 19-13 road win at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Williams, a junior, was targeted 14 times, 10 more than any other Clemson player, and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch. He had no catches in the first period before shining the last three quarters.
“I wanted to have a big game. I wanted to come out and have a big game, so it’s pretty much what I was expecting,” he said. “After the first quarter they came to the sideline and said we’re about to get you the ball. The second quarter hit and everything started flowing really good.”
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While Williams had a monster game, the Clemson offense as a whole did not click the way most expected.
Clemson finished with 399 total yards but was 6-for-17 on third down and turned the ball over twice.
Thanks mostly to the defense, Clemson was in control late, leading 19-6 with under five minutes remaining. Auburn then rallied to nearly pull off a miracle.
Auburn cut the lead to 19-13 with 3:22 remaining on a Kerryon Johnson 9-yard touchdown run. Clemson drove to the Auburn 15 and opted to go for it on fourth-and-four instead of attempting a field goal that would have put the game away.
Auburn stuffed Wayne Gallman after two yards, then drove to the Clemson 40 and took two shots at the end zone. Quarterback Sean White’s Hail Mary was batted in the air and fell incomplete to end the game.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he chose to pass on the field goal because he was worried about a blocked kick.
“We just didn’t want to take a shot at a field goal right there… I was confident in our defense,” he said.
Clemson’s defense controlled the game for most of the night, holding Auburn to 38 yards in the first half and finishing with three forced turnovers.
Clemson finished with 13 tackles for loss, led by Christian Wilkins with 2.5.
“It was really great for us to be able to step up like that and prove that we have the potential to be a really good defense,” Wilkins said. “We’ve been working hard all year. We’ve been able to reload. I was happy with what we were able to do tonight.”
Clemson led 10-3 at the half as Gallman answered Auburn’s field goal in the second quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 and Greg Huegel made a 30-yard field goal just before the half.
Huegel and Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson exchanged field goals midway through the second half before Clemson took a 19-6 lead as quarterback Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 16-yard touchdown with 9:59 remaining in the game.
Watson finished 19-for-34 for 248 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while Gallman rushed 30 times for 123 yards.
Freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence made seven tackles, including a sack, in the first action of his career.
Linebacker Ben Boulware and safety Jadar Johnson recorded interceptions for Clemson, while Boulware also forced a fumble, which was recovered by Wilkins.
After Clemson appeared in control, the game ended up coming down to two plays in the corner of the end zone. White had receivers in the area on both occasions but Clemson’s defense did a nice job of batting the ball down to seal the win.
Star of the game: Clemson WR Mike Williams ... After missing almost all of last year with a neck injury, Williams looked like the best player on the field, hauling in nine catches for 174 yards. He was targeted 14 times, 10 times more than anyone else on the team, and was a matchup nightmare for Auburn.
Play of the game: On third-and-8 with under two minutes remaining, Watson hit Williams on a back-shoulder throw to give Clemson a first down that should have put the game away.
Stat of the game: 13 ... Clemson’s defensive front was dominant, totaling 13 tackles for loss.
Mike Williams is fine: All offseason we were told Williams would be even better than last year, and he looked like it against Auburn.
Kevin Steele can coach: He was fired at Clemson after his defense’s embarrassing performance in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia but his unit kept Auburn in the game, holding one of the most explosive offenses in the country to 19 points.
Swinney nearly made a costly mistake: Opting to give Auburn the ball back with 40 seconds remaining instead of kicking a field goal that would have ended the game was a questionable move to say the least.
Who: Clemson vs. Troy
When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
TV: ACC Network (online only)
HOW THEY SCORED
AUB: FG Carlson 53, 13:03.
CLE: Gallman 1 run (Huegel kick), 07:38.
CLE: FG Huegel 30, 00:12.
CLE: FG Huegel 40, 10:41.
AUB: FG Carlson 32, 13:51.
CLE: Renfrow 16 pass from Watson (kick failed), 10:06.
AUB: Johnson 9 run (Carlson kick), 03:27.
Time of Possession
RUSHING: Clemson, Gallman 30-123, Watson 11-21, Choice 3-7. Auburn, Johnson 23-94, Truitt 4-7, Cox 4-6, White 4-(minus 2), Je.Johnson 6-(minus 18).
PASSING: Clemson, Watson 19-34-1-248. Auburn, Franklin 1-1-0-(minus 3), White 10-21-1-140, Je.Johnson 4-6-1-38.
RECEIVING: Clemson, Williams 9-174, Scott 3-30, Renfrow 3-27, McCloud 2-8, Gallman 1-8, Cain 1-1. Auburn, Davis 5-56, Hastings 3-29, R.Davis 2-17, Truitt 2-17, K.Davis 1-43, Stevens 1-16, Johnson 1-(minus 3).
MISSED FIELD GOALS: None.