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Clemson starters dominate Wake Forest in season opener

Walt Unks via The ACC

Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) is taken down by Wake Forest’s Ja’Sir Taylor after a long run in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wake Forest, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020 at Truist Field in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Walt Unks/Winston-Salem Journal)

Unlike most seasons, Clemson Football did not open the year with an out of conference game. Instead they played Wake Forest as a part of this year’s in-conference schedule. Despite the modifications, the schedule change did not seem to have an impact on the team, as the No. 1 Tigers put on a show in a 37-13 win against the Demon Deacons. 

On offense, junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence led an efficient passing game with 351 passing yards on 78.5% completion while senior running back Travis Etienne led the ground game with 102 rushing yards. This was also Etienne’s 18th 100-yard rushing game at Clemson, which breaks the record previously set by Wayne Gallman. Defensively, it was a total team effort that held Wake Forest to 330 total offensive yards.

Clemson had not lost to Wake Forest since 2008, and that streak continued tonight in dramatic fashion. After a three-and-out on their first drive, Clemson’s offense quickly put seven on the board with a nine-play, 92-yard drive highlighted by a beautiful 36-yard completion from Lawrence to junior Wide Receiver Amari Rodgers. The following drive, Etienne rushed for 48 yards on five carries which allowed Lawrence to score his second rushing touchdown and give Clemson a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. From that point forward, the offense continued to dominate and went into halftime with a 27-0 lead after a 52 yard field goal by junior kicker B.T. Potter with time expiring. 

In the majority of the third quarter, Lawrence and the starting offense continued to display their talent and scored ten points, six of which were scored on Etienne’s lone touchdown of the night. With one minute and 41 seconds left in the third, however, Head Coach Dabo Swinney subbed in freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and many other backups. Uiagalelei only had three pass attempts, but it was important for Lawrence’s future replacement to get his feet wet. Once these backups did come in, the Tigers’ offense stalled and was not able to score for the remainder of the game. 

On the other side of the ball, Clemson had some question marks heading into the game, specifically at cornerback and defensive end, where starters Derion Kendrick and Justin Foster were inactive. Whether or not their absences were COVID-related has yet to be announced, but the defense was still stifling even without those two contributors. In the first half, Clemson held Wake Forest to only four first downs and showed terrific poise and strength in their run defense. One early bright spot was freshman defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, who had a sack on Wake Forest’s first offensive drive and constantly disrupted the opposing offensive line. 

From the beginning, it was apparent that the Demon Deacons did not have the players offensively to keep up with Clemson’s defensive prowess. No statistic was more evident of that than Wake Forest’s poor running game. The Tigers’ front seven held the Demon Deacons to 37 rushing yards on a mere 1.1 yards per rush. The only battle that Clemson did not seem to win on defense was the turnover battle. The Tiger’s offense turned the ball over once, but the defense failed to take away the ball, which is uncharacteristic of Clemson. 

Although this game was a great start for Swinney and his team, there is plenty of room to improve. It is critical that all three phases, offense, defense and special teams, learn from the film and continue to improve every week. Next Saturday, look for the Tigers to do so in their home opener when they face off against a very familiar Citadel team. There may only be 19,000 fans, but the energy and noise are expected to be nothing short of electric!

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