CLEMSON — The canon fired. The stadium erupted. Clemson players rubbed Howard’s Rock and rushed down The Hill. They have upheld that tradition at Memorial Stadium since 1966.
They had never done it like this.
On Saturday, for the first time in its history, Clemson hurried down that hill as the No. 1 team in the nation. Clemson claimed the top ranking in the initial College Football Playoff ranking Tuesday.
That honor did not come with a deed. Ownership of that ranking was not guaranteed.
It was almost repossessed.
On Florida State’s second play from scrimmage, running back Dalvin Cook sprinted to a 75-yard touchdown and sapped the emotion that had poured over Death Valley. All the pregame exuberance was hushed to cautious groans after Clemson’s opening drive ended on Clemson’s equivalent of Haley’s Comet.
A rare overthrown pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson.
That aberration became commonplace through the first half. The offense sputtered. The defense faltered. The distinction Clemson chased since 1981 appeared in jeopardy.
Yet, Clemson diluted its faults with grit. The Tigers shook off their mistakes and held off their nemesis. They sealed the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division title and preserved their place among playoff contenders.
Clemson tightened the lapses in its run defense. The Tigers limited Cook to 44 yards in the second half. Florida State did not return to the end zone.
Watson opened the game flawed. He sailed balls over the stretched arms and surprised eyes of wide-open receivers. He squandered a potential touchdown drive with 42 seconds remaining in the half by spiking a ball on third down.
“He didn’t play very well in the first half,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s one thing when you miss three pointers. It’s another thing when you miss layups.”
Watson closed the game flawless. He completed each of his last eight pass attempts. The seventh in that series exhibited his prudence.
Two of Watson’s passes were batted down at the line of scrimmage in the first half. On third down and six in the fourth quarter, Watson loaded for a quick screen but a Florida State defender jumped in the passing lane. Watson pumped the ball then delivered a delayed stripe to Charone Peake, who darted 21 yards for a first down.
Watson surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. He reached the milestone on his final attempt, a designed run through the heart of Florida State’s defense. It resulted in a nine-yard gain.
“He showed why he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Swinney said. “With his guts.”
Watson took the next snap and knelt to the ground. The clock exhausted. The stadium erupted. Fans jumped over the walls and congregated on the field. Gatorade was poured over Swinney’s head.
They have upheld that tradition at Memorial Stadium for 15 consecutive home victories.
They had never done it like this.
As the No. 1 team in the nation.
The ranking Clemson affirmed and celebrated Saturday came with no guarantees or special privileges. It certainly did not persuade Florida State to renounce its ACC throne contently.
Clemson was challenged Saturday. Past Clemson teams reached such crossroads and either raced toward ruin or idled irresolutely at the intersection. These Tigers disregarded those familiar forks and sped straight ahead down a new road.
Paved with resolve. Pointed toward a championship.