Watson begins his march on record books

Tajh Boyd said before this season that the passing records he set during his time as Clemson’s quarterback wouldn’t last long.

And he pointed to Deshaun Watson as the person who would break them.

Well, the true freshman took his first big step in that march with his performance Saturday night against North Carolina.

In his first game as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, Watson was as good as advertised, setting a Clemson program record and matching the ACC record with six touchdown passes.

Watson completed 27-of-36 passes for 435 yards and only made one real mistake, his only interception, which was his first of the season. He has completed 56-of-77 throws this season for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Watson set the tone for the offense with a 74-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Germone Hopper on the Tigers’ second offensive play. That duo connected on a 50-yard score in the second quarter, and Watson also had scoring passes of 24, 33, 33 and 3 yards.

Watson was poised in the pocket and withstood the pressure from the Tar Heels, who obviously tried to shake up the talented freshman. That didn’t work, and Watson made the Tar Heels’ porous defense pay for that strategy throughout the game.

There was plenty of debate entering this season whether Cole Stoudt or Watson should be the starter and if Watson could handle the position as a true freshman. Well, that looks silly now. Watson has taken over this job, and there is no doubt about that; Stoudt played just a few series because Watson was simply too good to pull off the field.

And the way the game turned out, Watson had to be that good, or Saturday would have ended up in yet another disheartening loss.

TALENTED WEAPONS: DeAndre Hopkins left for the NFL two years ago.

Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant followed him last year.

Still, there is plenty of talent in the Clemson receiving corps, and that group, with a little help from the running backs and tight ends, showed that Saturday night. Ten players caught a ball, led by Artavis Scott with eight catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Mike Williams had a huge night with six catches for 122 yards and joined Hopper with two touchdown catches.

Hopper had only three catches, but those covered 139 yards. Also catching passes were Stanton Seckinger (1-27), Demarre Kitt (1-27), Adam Humphries (4-26), C.J. Davidson (2-12), D.J. Howard (1-8), Jordan Leggett (1-5 and a touchdown) and Wayne Gallman (1-4).

That’s the kind of balance in the passing game teams want. Yes, there are featured weapons to focus the game plan on, but Watson is good enough – and the other skill players are good enough – to spread the ball around.

WHERE'S THE RUNNING GAME? Watson had to keep throwing the ball because the Clemson rushing game was all but nonexistent.

A North Carolina rush defense that was awful against East Carolina the week before held the Clemson rushing game to 92 yards on 44 carries. That’s a paltry 2.1 yards per carry after averaging just 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State the week before.

Clemson doesn’t really have a go-to back, so it has to go to a committee running game with Howard, Davidson, Gallman and Adam Choice. But those players can’t do anything with the kind of performance that was put forth in front of them by the offensive line against the Tar Heels. There simply was no room to run, and the Tigers’ running backs paid the price.

That will need to be a point of emphasis moving forward. Clemson can’t just win on Watson’s arm alone. He’s special but not that special.

The Tigers have to have at least a respectable running game.

AND THE DOMINANT D? Watson and the offense had to keep throwing the ball and scoring for another reason: The Clemson defense was as bad as its rushing game, if not worse.

Clemson’s defense had been really strong for 11 of the first 12 quarters this season, but that changed Saturday night. For all the positives that came through the first three games, Saturday marked a big step back for the defense. Yes, North Carolina is a pass-happy offense that likes to go up-tempo. But there is no excuse for the performance by the Clemson defense Saturday: 478 total yards allowed (394 passing) and 9-of-20 on third- and fourth-down tries.

North Carolina, like Clemson, struggled running the ball with 84 yards on 30 attempts, so that is somewhat a positive. But the Tar Heels don’t really try to run it much, and when they got behind early, they all but abandoned the run. Still, knowing that, Clemson’s secondary couldn’t cover the Tar Heels with any consistency as 13 players caught a pass for North Carolina.

NEXT UP: On Saturday, Clemson hosts an N.C. State team that gave Florida State all it could handle in a 56-41 loss. N.C. State led that game 24-7 after one quarter and by 10 in the third quarter before the Seminoles came alive and pulled away for the win.

The Wolfpack have plenty of offense, and their attack is every bit as dynamic and diverse as North Carolina’s. So the Tigers better figure out their defensive issues (and their rushing game issues), or they could be in for another shootout.

Or they could just continue to lean on Watson and his dynamic receivers and see where that leads them.


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