It was much more difficult than it should have been, but it was a win. No. 4 Clemson topped Florida State 31-14 to claim the ACC Atlantic Division championship and take a step forward toward defending its national championship.
Clemson claimed a 17-0 halftime lead that could have been 28-0 without a pair of Kelly Bryant fumbles, and then found itself fending off an upset bid in the tail end of the fourth quarter.
With the score still 17-0 late in the third quarter, Florida State got on the board with a 7-play, 90-yard touchdown drive punctuated by a 3-yard Jacques Patrick run. After three straight punts, Florida State scored again, this time on a perfectly executed reverse-flea flicker from Blackman to tight end Ryan Izzo who bobbed and weaved his way for a 60-yard score, pulling the Seminoles within 17-14 with 8:53 to play in the game.
And then Bryant (151 passing yards, 60 rushing yards) fumbled — his third of the game — on Clemson’s next touch, giving Florida State the ball at the Clemson 40 with 6:36 to play.
However, Blackman immediately gave the ball right back. Florida State’s next snap was an interception to Clemson’s Van Smith on a throw where Smith was the only player in the picture. He returned the ball 38 yards to the FSU 44, and a rejuvenated Clemson offense sprung to life with a 6-play touchdown drive that killed half the remaining clock and Florida State’s chances of completing the comeback. Adam Choice added a punctuation mark score with 35 seconds remaining.
Both of Clemson’s first two touchdowns came with help from Florida State (3-6, 3-5 ACC). The first was set up by a fumble by Blackman (12-of-31 passing for 202 yards with one touchdown and one interception, five sacks), which Clemson’s Tre Lamar recovered at the FSU 20-yard line. Bryant rushed in from two yards out to put the Tigers up at the 2:51 mark of the first quarter.
Clemson (9-1, 7-1 ACC) threatened to add a second score midway through the second quarter, but Travis Feaster fumbled the ball at the FSU 1, and Demarcus Christmas hopped on the ball for Florida State. However, Clemson forced a punt from inside the Florida State end zone, and Ray Ray McCloud returned the boot 35 yards to the FSU 28. Travis Etienne raced in for Clemson’s second score on play later.
Bryant nearly gave away another red zone fumble on Clemson’s final drive of the half, with three Florida State defenders touching a loose football inside the FSU 10. But Bryant out-hustled all three of them to get the ball back, allowing Alex Spence to bang in a 26-yard field goal with 1:39 left before halftime.
The win pushes Clemson into the ACC Championship for the third consecutive year — matching 2012-14 Florida State for the longest appearance streak in the 13-year history of the game — and the fifth time overall, which ties Florida State for the second most in the ACC. (Virginia Tech leads the league with six division titles.) All five trips have come under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers have won their last three ACC title game appearances.
Not coincidentally, the win also gives Clemson three straight victories over Florida State. That matches the Tigers’ longest winning streak over the ‘Noles, though the two ACC Atlantic titans did not play regularly until Florida State joined the ACC in 1992. (Florida State leads the all-time series, 20-11.) The victory also pushes Swinney above .500 (5-4) against Florida State since obtaining the full-time head coaching job in 2009.
Of course, Clemson’s program has progressed well beyond simply Florida State and winning their division. The Tigers are in the midst of defending their College Football Playoff championship, and now three more wins separate them from a third straight CFP berth.
Florida State, meanwhile, now must reel off wins over Delaware State, Florida and Louisiana-Monroe to keep its FBS-leading 35-year bowl streak alive.