CLEMSON — When the Clemson offense needed to make a big play late in Saturday night’s game against Auburn, it went to Mike Williams.
Facing a 3rd-and-8 with less than two minutes to play but only a six-point lead, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw a deep passing attempt to Williams up the left sideline. Williams was covered well by Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis. But Williams was able to come back against Davis and make a 20-yard catch at the boundary, moving the chains and getting Clemson out of one of its most tenuous spots of the night, helping the Tigers seal a 19-13 victory.
That play was just one of many in Saturday’s game where Williams came back to the ball against solid coverage and made a contested catch. Williams said those were plays he and Watson worked on together entering the season opener.
“I told him the (defensive back) was playing hard on top, so I was going to run a lot of back-shoulder balls, so that’s what he did, and everything worked out,” Williams said.
If there was any question whether Williams would bounce back strong after missing all of last season with a neck injury, the redshirt junior wide receiver erased all doubt with his performance on Saturday night.
Williams announced himself as the star of Clemson’s receiving corps once again on the Tigers’ fourth series of the game, when he caught his first three passes of the season for 51 total yards. Clemson finished that drive with its first touchdown of the game to take a 7-3 lead.
“He was a spark for us tonight,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “We got off to a slow start. We wanted to come out fast, and he came alive.”
In the first half alone, Williams caught six passes for 105 yards. He finished the night with a career-high nine receptions for 174 yards. On a night Watson threw for 248 yards, Williams accounted for more than 70 percent of the team’s receiving yards by himself.
All of this came just 364 days after Williams suffered a neck fracture when he slammed into the goalpost while catching a touchdown in last year’s season opener against Wofford.
“Man, it’s good to see him back out there, after a year of not playing in a game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s big for him.”
Williams’ return to action wasn’t perfect. On his fourth catch of the night, Williams lost a fumble while trying to fight for extra yardage. Williams also felt that he missed two opportunities for touchdowns on passes he could have caught.
“He’ll be the first to tell you he wanted to convert on that touchdown that he dropped, and there was another one down the sideline he thought he could have made,” Elliott said.
Williams feels he still needs to work on “everything” going into Clemson’s second game against Troy, but his teammates and coaches were impressed with his play. Even defensive coordinator Brent Venables took notice of the wide receiver’s performance.
“He’s as good as I’ve seen here at Clemson,” Venables said. “And he’s playing different than he was even before he got injured. Just playing on another planet.
“Good coverage, and he just makes good plays on the ball. That’s what the great ones do though.”
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