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Clemson rushes past Florida State into ACC title game
CLEMSON, S.C. -- After losing star quarterback Deshaun Watson and five of his teammates in the NFL Draft last April, not many observers gave Clemson much of chance to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship for a third straight year.
The doubts suited Coach Dabo Swinney just fine.
“Nobody really picked us to win the league this year, and not many picked us to win the division, so I‘m glad my guys didn’t get that memo,” Swinney said. “They just went to work.”
So far, so good.
Freshman running back Travis Etienne rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns as No. 4 Clemson clinched a berth in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game with a 31-14 victory against Florida State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Etienne scored on a 28-yard run in the second quarter, but it was his 1-yard plunge with 3:05 remaining that preserved Clemson’s third consecutive victory over the Seminoles.
The victory delivered a third straight Atlantic Division title and punched a third straight ticket to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, where the Tigers (9-1, 7-1) will play ACC Coastal Division champion Miami on Dec. 2 at Bank of America Stadium.
Florida State (3-6, 3-5) must win each of its remaining three games to keep its record 35-year bowl streak alive.
“We’re going to fight our tails off for three more weeks,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “And finish this season the right way.”
Clemson, the defending national champion, appeared to be in command for much of the game, leading 17-0 late in the third quarter. But Florida State made it interesting, scoring two touchdowns in a seven-minute span to cut the Tigers’ lead to 17-14 with 8:53 left.
Quarterback James Blackman drove the Seminoles 90 yards in seven plays to set up a 3-yard run by freshman running back Cam Akers with 1:13 left in the third quarter, then found tight end Ryan Izzo wide open for a 60-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
The Seminoles appeared poised to pull off the upset when Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant fumbled the ball away with 6:54 remaining on his own 39-yard line, but Clemson safety Van Smith intercepted a pass by Blackman on the next play and returned the ball to the Seminoles’ 44.
Six plays later Etienne bulled his way in from the 1 to give Clemson some breathing room with a 24-14 lead with 3:05 left.
Running back Adam Choice added a 10-yard run with 35 seconds left for the final score.
“That was a heck of a college football game,” Fisher said. “With five minutes to go, we were right there to have a chance, but we let it slip away from us. Give them credit, they made the plays they needed to win the game.”
Clemson’s defense was dominant over the first 30 minutes, with five tackles for loss, including four sacks, five passes broken up and two forced fumbles. The Tigers held the Seminoles to 46 total yards and three first downs in the first half and also set the table for Clemson’s first score.
Linebacker Tre Lamar sacked Blackman for a 12-yard loss and recovered Blackman’s fumble on the play, setting the Tigers up at the Seminoles’ 20-yard line.
Clemson scored six plays later on a 2-yard run by Bryant, his 10th rushing touchdown of the season, with 2:51 left in the first quarter.
Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud set up Clemson’s second touchdown with a 35-yard punt return to the Seminoles’ 28. Etienne dashed 28 yards up the middle on the next play for his eighth touchdown of the season with 6:34 left in the first half.
Clemson extended its lead to 17-0 with 1:33 left in the half on a 26-yard field goal by Austin Spence.
Clemson finished with 10 tackles for loss and held Florida State to 229 total yards, including a season-low 21 yards rushing.
“To be able to hold Florida State to 21 yards rushing was great,” said Swinney, whose team played without three defensive starters sidelined by injury. “All kinds of guys stepped up. We’ve committed to playing these young guys all season and giving ourselves the best path moving forward both this year and into next year, and they’ve played well.”
Blackman completed 13 of 32 passes for 208 yards while Akers, who was coming off a 199-yard performance against Syracuse, was held to 40 yards on 12 carries.
Clemson’s Bryant was 20 of 30 for 151 yards. He also rushed 19 times for 60 yards and a touchdown.
NOTES: Clemson WR Ray-Ray McCloud ranks 13th in the nation in punt returns with a 13.5 average. ... WR Deon Cain has caught at least one pass in 33 consecutive games, the 10th longest active streak in the nation. ... RB Travis Etienne’s nine rushing touchdowns this season have covered an average of 25.4 yards. ... Florida State TE Ryan Izzo’s 60-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was the longest catch of his career and the longest touchdown reception for the Seminoles this season. ... DE Josh Sweat had two tackles for loss, giving him 11.5 this season and matching his career high set in 2016. ... DE Brian Burns forced two fumbles against Clemson and had a career-high 4 1/2 tackles for loss.