Let us recount the ways No. 22 Clemson could have beaten No. 1 Florida State Saturday night in Tallahassee:
- Not under-throw a wide-open tight end on third-and-goal on the first drive of the game.
- Not miss the ensuing field goal.
- Not snap the ball over your quarterback’s head while knocking on the door of another touchdown, moving from the four-inch line to the 24.
- Not missing that ensuing field goal.
- Not having your defensive back fall down in front of Florida State’s best receiver, allowing an otherwise silent Rashad Greene to stroll in for a game-tying 74-yard touchdown grab.
- Not fumbling the ball at the Florida State 14 with 1:36 to play, missing a chance at a game-winning touchdown or field goal.
- Not running the ball on fourth-and-1 against a stacked box in overtime.
Clemson did every one of those things, and thereby turned a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead into a 23-17 overtime loss to Florida State.
The obvious story was the continued struggle of Florida State quarterback Sean Maguire, playing for the suspended Jameis Winston, and the corresponding dominant effort of the Clemson defensive front. Maguire completed 21-of-39 passes for 305 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Take away the 74-yard gift and add in the six sacks for 49 yards and you get a more accurate representation of Maguire’s first start: 182 yards on 43 called pass plays, good for 4.2 yards per attempt, with two interceptions. Oh, and Florida State also ran for minus-12 yards in regulation.
Cole Stoudt started the game for Clemson, played the first three series, and was not seen again. That was partly of his own doing – Clemson did not score in his time on the field – but mostly it was due to the play of his freshman backup Deshaun Watson. He accounted for 296 yards of total offense and one touchdown with no turnovers. Considering the play of the Clemson defensive line, there’s a chance he’d have been the best quarterback on the field even with a certain Heisman winner in action.
After trading field goals to open the game, D.J. Howard powered in from one-yard out to give the Tigers a 10-3 lead with 5:56 remaining in the first half, a lead it would take into halftime. Florida State opened the second half with the ball and put together without a doubt its best possession of the half, moving 68 yards in nine plays, setting up a Mario Pender one-yard run to tie the game with 11:05 remaining in the third quarter. Clearly buzzing after his halftime talk with the coaching staff, this drive was the only time Maguire looked the part of a major college starter, connecting on 6-of-7 throws for 53 yards. Again, take out this drive and the touchdown, and Maguire’s 36 other called passes registered a total of 129 yards.
Watson put Clemson on top again at 17-10 with a two-yard run four minutes into the second half, which Florida State equalized when Maguire found a wide open Greene for a 74-yard catch-and-jog.
Clemson appeared to be in perfect shape to win the game after Maguire airmailed a pass into the arms of Jadar Johnson, which he returned 24 yards to the Florida State 26.
And now we are into the portion of the game where Florida State defensive lineman Eddie Goldman wrecked everything in sight, including the hopes of every Clemson fan in existence. After an eight-yard run by Watson on first down, Goldman forced a Davidson fumble at the Seminoles’ 14, thereby doing just about the only thing possible to keep Florida State from losing.
On the opening possession of overtime, Goldman sacked Watson for a loss of four on second down, and then created the disruption that allowed a host of Seminoles to stuff Adam Choice for no gain on fourth-and-1 to end Clemson’s chance in overtime. Two plays later, Karlos Williams rumbled into the end zone for the game-winning score.
With the win, Florida Stats has obviously survived the Winston suspension, and seemingly will be more galvanized than ever in its drive to repeat. The Seminoles are now officially the clear favorites to win the ACC, and thus become the ACC’s representative in the College Football Playoff. There are hurdles to cleared between now and then, a home date with No. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 18, and a Thursday night trip to Louisville on Oct. 30, and two six-point wins in its only two games against competent opponents suggest this is not the Florida State juggernaut of a year ago. But a betting man would say this is the closest Florida State and its 19-game winning streak come to defeat until January.
For Clemson, what can you even say? The Tigers will never have a better shot at their first win over an AP No. 1. The schedule gets breezy from here, but that feels like hollow consolation for a team that’s 1-2 and has seen any realistic hopes of a championship evaporate before the end of September. This was a loss every Clemson fan, player and coach will try – and fail – to forget.