AUBURN, Ala. — Breaking down No. 2 Clemson’s 19-13 victory against Auburn on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
THE BIG PICTURE: If you came into the season expecting offensive fireworks every time Clemson took the field, well, that was probably asking too much for the opener — particularly in a tough road environment against a talented Auburn team. Clemson wasn’t sharp, and that’s largely a credit to Auburn’s defense. But Clemson was good enough to win and controlled the game to a far greater degree than the final score.
There will be plenty to clean up over the course of the season, and star quarterback Deshaun Watson won’t be thrilled with his final numbers — 248 passing yards on 19-of-34 with 21 rushing yards — but Clemson will be pleased to get out of town 1-0.
Auburn, meanwhile, had a baffling performance on several fronts but can at least take heart in holding such a potent offense under 20 points. Auburn’s defensive line, which has stacked talent in recruiting recently, lived up to its billing and should be the be the strength of the team. This looks like the best defense Gus Malzahn has had at Auburn.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT: The Clemson defense just keeps reloading. Despite losing a significant amount of talent off the group that nearly beat Alabama in last year’s national title game, the Tigers look very talented once again and held Auburn to 262 total yards. Through three quarters, Auburn had just 130 yards on 47 plays. Worries about the depth of talent in Clemson’s program after losing six defensive starters early to the NFL Draft certainly have to be eased after this kind of performance. Freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, in particular, looked like a future star with seven tackles and a sack.
KEY PLAY: Despite getting no offensive push through 2 1/2 quarters, Auburn’s defense kept it in the game. That’s why it was so baffling when the Tigers finally got good field position off an interception that Malzahn turned down a 23-yard field goal while trailing just 13-3 and instead went for a 4th-and-1.
What’s more, Malzahn put in Jeremy Johnson — his slowest quarterback — to execute the play, and he got stuffed on a keeper to ensure Auburn came away with no points on its best drive of the game with 3:00 left in the third quarter.
That sequence exemplified the night for Malzahn, who used three quarterbacks but ran them in and out of the game at a dizzying pace, using several gimmick formations. There didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to his quarterback choices, and at times Auburn was confusing itself far more than Clemson.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: He’s not exactly a new name, but it’s one we haven’t heard in a while.
Clemson receiver Mike Williams, who suffered a neck fracture in the 2015 season opener and wasn’t able to play the rest of the season, looked spectacular in his return with nine catches for 173 yards. Williams very likely would have been in the NFL already without the injury, but came back and will clearly make a difference for this team. His final catch sealed it for Clemson, hauling in a 20-yard completion on third down to prevent Auburn from getting the ball back inside the final two minutes.
WHAT THE HECK?: Clemson seemed to be able to run the clock down to almost nothing, but running back Wayne Gallman ran out of bounds on third down with 45 seconds left. Then Clemson coach Dabo Swinney went for it on 4th-and-4 instead of kicking a 34-yard field goal to put the game out of reach. It nearly came back to bite him, as Auburn got two Hail Mary attempts at the end zone, both of which were unsuccessful.
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