A night to remember

CLEMSON – Five years later, the play still sticks with Dabo Swinney.

His first game as Clemson's interim head coach in October 2008, fighting to unite a team battered by Tommy Bowden's sudden departure.

Georgia Tech is on the ropes, leading Clemson 21-17 with under five minutes left in the game when Jacoby Ford catches a 27-yard pass to the Tech 20. It's called back. Holding, Thomas Austin – and Tech hangs on to beat Clemson.

A year later in Atlanta, Kyle Parker connects with Ford for a 38-yard pass that could have set up the go-ahead score in 27-27 game in the fourth quarter.

"What happened?" Swinney said Thursday night. "Holding – Thomas Austin."

Nemesis, thy name is Paul Johnson. Swinney entered Thursday with Georgia Tech and Johnson's flexbone established as one of the biggest bugaboos in his Clemson head coaching career. In six tries, Swinney had beaten Johnson only twice, and it was never easy.

So you'd better believe No. 8 Clemson 55, Georgia Tech 31 was a major relief.

For once, Swinney could enjoy the fourth quarter with a smile. For once, he could relax – well, a little – against the dreaded option with Johnson glaring from the opposite sideline.

Clemson (9-1, 7-1 ACC) is one win away from its third consecutive 10-win season, and how the Tigers got there was sweet indeed.

"That was a great win," Swinney said. "I was really proud of our team. Really proud of how they persevered and handled adversity in this game. I thought they came ready. Georgia Tech has been incredibly difficult for us and the way we competed all night was awesome."

In Swinney's eyes, nights like Thursday show just how consistent his program has become.

With a win against The Citadel, Clemson will have three consecutive 10-win seasons. The last time that happened? 1987-90, when the Tigers had four consecutive 10-win campaigns.If Florida State qualifies for the BCS national title game, the Tigers are likely to be named as the ACC's representative in the BCS bowl structure.

"They think they can win the right way, think they can win every week," Swinney said. "Regardless of who they play and when they play. It's a very coachable group. Fun to be around every day. In 2011 we won 10 games for the first time in 20 years.

"I said, ‘That's great, but we've got to put three, four, five, six of those years in a row to be a nationally relevant program. We want to be a great program, a consistent program."

Clemson outgained Tech 545-440, and that included Tech's meaningless 85-yard touchdown drive to end the game against the Tigers' defensive reserves.

After five years of flailing against the flexbone, the Tigers' defenders were disciplined. Confident.

Tech entered the game averaging 311.8 yards rushing per game, fourth-best nationally.

However, Clemson's defense consistently took proper angles and bottled up the Yellow Jackets, save two Robert Godhigh runs for 97 yards. Tech finished with 248 rushing yards, well below its average. And 72 of those came on the final drive.

"Our defense is the most improved part of our team," Swinney said. "We can separate from people a little better. Our defense is much more sound especially in a game like this."

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said the game was "a clinic at times out there," but still wasn't altogether pleased.

"I'm still a little bit chapped with the last drive, a couple plays, but I'm not mad at anybody," Venables said. "It could have been a real special performance and there are a handful of plays where, if you're prideful at all, if you're invested, it should matter. Not to take the shine off the win."

About the only thing that could do that was the final play of the third quarter. On a chilly night in Death Valley, Tajh Boyd's final play of the night surely sent a shiver down Clemson fans' spines.

Boyd rushed for seven yards to the Tech 40 – then didn't get up after a Yellow Jacket defender fell awkwardly on his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Boyd held his shoulder, jogged to the sideline – and then jogged to Clemson's locker room.

It was a frightening moment, given the weight that Boyd carries in the Tigers' high-powered offense: he finished the night 20-of-26 for 340 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He said at first he thought his college career was over.

"It sounded a lot worse than what it really was," he said. "It was this nasty crunching, cracking sound."

X-rays revealed a bruised left collarbone and sternum, and Boyd said he'd be back at practice Monday, with nothing keeping him out of his final home game.

Good thing, because the offense looked special against a very good Tech defense. Tech entered with the nation's No.12 overall defense, the No.10 rushing defense and the No.14 scoring defense.

Clemson passed for 383 yards and rushed for 168, a balanced attack. Martavis Bryant and Sammy Watkins combined for 10 receptions, 280 yards and three touchdowns, with Bryant rolling up a career-high 176 yards and a touchdown on five receptions. He showed he can be a deep threat, telling Boyd, "you can't out-throw me – just throw it up and I'll run under it."

Six different players scored touchdowns, and the offense showed fight. When Georgia Tech closed within 27-17 with 12 minutes left in the third quarter, Clemson scored a pair of quick-strike scores and put the game away. It was just that easy.

With two games left, the offense is rounding into form, and so is Venables' defense. Both appear to be peaking at the perfect time, for what Swinney calls "a November to remember."

Aside from Boyd's scare, it was a night to remember in Clemson – especially for Swinney.

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