Chop Blocked: Tigers beat Seminoles to clinch ACC Atlantic Division title


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FSU's James Blackman is stripped of the football by Tre Lamar
FSU's James Blackman is stripped of the football by Tre Lamar

CLEMSON – Upset averted, division title won.

Van Smith’s fourth-quarter interception turned the tide and No. 4 Clemson held off a determined Florida St. squad in defeating the Seminoles 31-14 at Death Valley Saturday afternoon, clinching the ACC Atlantic Division title and a berth in the ACC Championship Game for the third straight year.

The Seminoles were poised to either go ahead or tie the game late, but Smith intercepted FSU quarterback James Blackman, setting up a Travis Etienne touchdown. Clemson improves to 9-1 overall and finishes 7-1 in the ACC. Florida St. falls to 3-6 overall and 3-4 in the ACC. The Seminoles have to win their final three games to qualify for a bowl game.

Etienne led the Tigers with 97 yards on 14 carries. Kelly Bryant added 19 carries for 60 yards. Bryant was 20-30 through the air for 151 yards. The Tigers rushed 52 times for 227 yards. Clemson ran 82 plays and won the time of possession battle by 13 minutes.

“That was the next goal for us. You can’t play for the conference title if you don’t win the division," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "I’m so proud of this team. Nobody really picked us to win the league this year, and not many picked us to win the division..so I’m glad my guys didn’t get that memo. They just went to work. We’ve had a lot of guys step up and earn it.

“To be able to hold Florida State to 21 yards rushing was great. Of course, we had several opportunities to put them away that we missed out on. That’s really the biggest disappointment of the game. We left 11 points on the field in the first half. But, at the end of the day, I’m really proud of our defense. The turnover by Van Smith was huge. For him to get that interception and for us to score not long after that was big. On offense, our rushing game was good. Travis Etienne got loose several times, and Adam Choice had some critical carries toward the end.”

Florida St. head coach Jimbo Fisher said Clemson made the plays that FSU didn't.

"Give credit to Clemson, they played a great game," Fisher said. "That was a heck of a college football game. With five minutes to go, we were right there to have a chance, but we let it slip away from of us. Give them credit, they made the plays they needed to to win the game.

"It was a great atmosphere, and our kids are learning, and we can continue to grow from this. They competed very hard, played very hard and made a heck of a run to come back and have a chance to be in it, but we need to relax and make the play when we have to. We had some opportunities in the game earlier... some different things, whether it was offense, defense or special teams. We just can't seem to make that play when we need to make it...whether it is picking up a fumble, drop a post, overthrow a couple balls. We had big plays, and we need to relax and make those plays. The heart, the soul and the drive is in those kids, we just have to get them to make those plays at the right time."

The Tigers got the first break of the game and it came courtesy of Tre Lamar. Both offenses were ineffective early, but Lamar sacked FSU quarterback James Blackman for a 12-yard loss, forcing a fumble in the process. Lamar jumped up and recovered the loose ball at the FSU 20. Six plays later, Bryant rumbled into the end zone from two yards out and the Tigers led 7-0 with a little over three minutes to play in the first quarter.

The Tigers marched steadily down the field on their next possession and were poised to go in for the score when Bryant and Tavien Feaster didn’t connect on a handoff and the Seminoles recovered at their own three. Clemson’s defense forced a quick three-and-out and Ray-Ray McCloud returned the punt 35 yards to the FSU 28. One play later Travis Etienne burst through the middle for the 28-yard scoring run and the Tigers led 14-0 with 6:34 to play in the half.

The Tigers forced another quick punt by the Seminoles and put together a nine play, 62-yard scoring drive. An Adam Choice carry put the ball inside the one, but Bryant fumbled (the ball was recovered by Tremayne Anchrum) and Clemson settled for a 26-yard field from Alex Spence and led 17-0 with under two minutes to play in the half.

The Seminoles took the opening kickoff of the second half and put together their best drive of the night. FSU drove to the Clemson 25 and faced a 4th-and-two. Head coach Jimbo Fisher called a timeout and elected to go for it. Blackman dropped back to pass and receiver Auden Tate was wide open but dropped the pass to stop the drive.

Clemson’s offense went to sleep for the entire third quarter and the Florida St. offense woke up. The Seminoles finally got on the board late in the quarter, putting together a 90-yard drive aided by Clemson penalties. Jacquez Patrick strolled into the end zone from three yards out and Clemson led 17-7 at the end of the third quarter.

Clemson’s offense failed to wake up to start the fourth – Bryant missed wide open receivers and Deon Cain dropped a sure touchdown – and the Seminoles made them pay. Blackman hit a wide-open Ryan Izzo on a 60-yard touchdown pass, and Clemson held a tenuous 17-14 lead with 8:53 to play.

Bryant fumbled the ball away to Florida St. on the ensuing series, and the Noles had the ball at the Clemson 39 and all the momentum in the world. That momentum disappeared in one play. Blackman’s pass over the middle was intercepted by safety Van Smith and returned to the FSU 44.

Etienne dipped, dodged and waggled his way to a 25-yard gain Florida St. five, and two plays later scored from a yard out to make it 24-14 with 3:05 to play. The Seminoles turned it over on downs on the ensuing possession, and Adam Choice scored from 10 yards out to make it 31-14 with 35 seconds to play.

Clemson plays host to The Citadel next Saturday at 12:20 p.m. on Military Appreciation Day.

“Senior day is next week, which will be exciting. That’ll be the last game in the Valley for our seniors," Swinney said. "Then, it’ll be on to the state championship, and then, a chance to play in the ACC title game. We’ll be ready to play. This is an exciting time. It’s playoff football. It really is. Every single week, we’re competing for something new, and that’s what makes it so much fun.”

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