Dabo Swinney has a very intentional policy when it comes to taking in the wins that don’t come quite as easily for his Clemson football team.
Crank up the music and celebrate tonight.
Get up tomorrow and go back to work.
But after No. 4 Clemson’s defense allowed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against Florida State in a 34-28 Tigers win on Saturday night, not every member of said unit was exactly ready to pivot to dance mode in the visitors locker room at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“We’ve got a lot we’ll be able to learn from it,” Swinney said, “but man, as I told them in there, I know some guys were a little disappointed in how they finished the game but we’ll worry about that later. Let’s celebrate the win and we’ll get back to work. Enjoy it tonight.”
It was a parting message of positivity after a final 15 minutes that, understandably, generated some negative feelings. After trailing 7-0 and 14-7 early, Clemson had piled 27 unanswered points on FSU and took a momentum-killing 34-14 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Then, Swinney said, “we just lost our mind.”
Quarterback Jordan Travis and the rest of Florida State’s offense ran wild after being suppressed most of the game, and after consecutive fourth quarter touchdowns Clemson needed an onside kick recovery from receiver Brannon Spector and a first down by running back Will Shipley to officially put away a game that should’ve been over a long time ago.
The fourth-ranked Tigers moved to 7-0 and 5-0 in the ACC ahead of next weekend’s home against No. 18 Syracuse, but not without some welts.
In the fourth quarter alone, FSU outscored Clemson 14-0, outgained the Tigers 169-40 in total offense and executed rapid seven-play touchdown drives of 60 yards and 94 yards to cut a 20-point lead down to six points with 2: 17 remaining.
Swinney’s diagnosis of what went wrong?
“Busted assignments, lost focus, busted assignments, not tackling, missed tackles … busted on a screen-and-go,” Swinney said. “Just some dumb stuff. Penalties, a little bit of everything there. Just kind of lost our focus. I thought it was playing to the scoreboard, if you will.”
That “disappointing” stretch negated some of Clemson’s earlier defensive effectiveness, which included a key strip sack from defensive end Myles Murphy during a 17-0 run in the game’s “middle eight” portion, a fourth and goal pass breakup from defensive end KJ Henry and two other forced turnovers on downs.
Travis finished the game with 381 total yards and three touchdowns as the Seminoles outgained the Tigers 460 to 370 in total yards and 206 to 167 in rushing yards. FSU had 10 rushing plays of 10-plus yards and seven passing plays of 15-plus yards.
“There were some good things (defensively), and we really had control,” Swinney said. “But just really, really sloppy down at the end there.”
Perhaps most concerning: Clemson’s shortcomings came with coordinator Wes Goodwin’s defense at, essentially, full strength for the first time all season. This wasn’t the undermanned secondary that got gashed by Wake Forest in a double overtime shootout or the undermanned defensive line failing to sack quarterbacks at the elite rate it wanted.
This was a loaded unit that welcomed starting cornerback Sheridan Jones, starting defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and rotational safeties RJ Mickens and Tyler Venables back to the lineup. Clemson also got defensive end Xavier Thomas back last week, meaning the Tigers had their full “Avengers”-nicknamed defensive line at their deployment.
To be clear, the Tigers’ offense did the defense no favors late with zero points in the fourth quarter. Clemson went three and out directly ahead of FSU’s first fourth quarter touchdown (34-21) and embarked on a clock-draining but ultimately scoreless 10-play drive ahead of FSU’s second fourth quarter TD (34-28).
Still, Clemson’s defense couldn’t have been in a much better spot after punter Aidan Swanson pinned FSU at its own six-yard line with 3:52 remaining. The ensuing play-by-play: Travis seven-yard completion, incompletion, Travis 10-yard rush, Travis 23-yard completion, incompletion, Travis 29-yard completion, Travis 25-yard touchdown pass.
That’s seven plays and 94 yards in the blink of an eye.
Goodwin described Murphy’s strip sack, which set up a Clemson touchdown right before halftime, as “huge” and praised cornerback Nate Wiggins for two major pass breakups. But he also lamented the Tigers’ lack of technique in their tackling, the injuries that prompted “rusty” performances from recently healed players and a general lack of finishing.
“Kind of like a shark, you smell blood in the water and you’ve got to finish the job,” Goodwin said. “We can’t relax and let our guard down. We’ve got to play with the same intensity we played the whole game with.”
Those slip-ups haven’t caught up to the Tigers just yet. Blessed with a competent offense and a roster of four-star and five-star recruits, Clemson’s been able to lean on quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and company and sometimes compensate for its mistakes with athleticism alone and celebrate seven wins all the same.
And until stretches of poor defensive play became full games of poor defensive play, Swinney made it clear postgame that one statistic trumps the rest.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Florida State,” he said. “I’ve had my butt beat by these dudes a lot of times … it could’ve been a one-point win and I’d be happy. We’re going to get ready for the next one. Proud of them and know they’ll show back up ready to roll.”
This story was originally published October 16, 2022 6:30 AM.