The victory over the Tigers (1-3) gave FSU its first Atlantic Coast Conference win of the season.
"In football you have got offense, defense and the kicking game," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "I think you saw today how the kicking game was able to neutralize things."
Clemson trailed just 24-22 with 7:30 to play in the third thanks to a safety on Chansi Stuckey's punt block and Justin Miller's second kickoff return touchdown of the day. But Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was stonewalled by a gang of FSU defenders on the two-point conversion try and the Seminoles pulled away from there.
Sexton engineered a pair of long scoring drives to seal the outcome in the latter stages of the game.
For the third straight week, the FSU defense was stingy, holding the Tigers to just 173 yards of total offense and forcing them to rely on the return skills of Miller for results.
"When you play defense like that you're always going to have a chance to win," Bowden said. "While you're out there making mistakes and getting adjusted, they're holding down the other team."
The Seminole defense transformed five turnovers by Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst into three touchdowns. Included was a second-quarter spurt in which the Seminoles put up 14 points in 18 seconds that turned a four-point Tiger advantage into a 17-7 deficit.
With Clemson up 7-3 early, Eric Moore forced a Whitehurst fumble that Eric Moore recovered at the Tiger 9, leading to a B.J. Dean touchdown run. On the next play from scrimmage, Leroy Smith stepped in front of a Whitehurst pass and took it 41-yards to paydirt, giving the FSU defense its second touchdown of the year.
"On defense, we're always trying to make things happen," said Smith, who pickup his second career touchdown. "That's our main focus."
"A lot of credit needs to go to the guys up front," Cromartie said. "We worked all week on our pass rush because last year we weren't able to get to (Whitehurst). This time around they got to him and forced him into some bad decisions."
Added Bowden: "Our defense is rushing the passer better than they have in the past three or four years."
Sexton entering the game was no surprise. The fact that the sophomore backup finished it was. Sexton entered late in the first when Chris Rix sprained his right ankle trying to evade a Clemson pass rusher.
X-rays turned up negative and Rix was back – helmet strapped – one series later but remained on the sideline for the balance of the afternoon.
Sexton, who had just 100 career passing yards heading into the contest, completed 17-of-26 passes for 162 yards including a 47-yard touchdown pass to Chauncey Stovall on a go route.
"The first series or two was nerve-wracking, in all honesty," Sexton said. "But after that I felt like I got in the flow of things. After halftime, I came out, calmed myself and executed plays."
Stovall, whose score was the first for the Seminoles through the air this season, led all receivers with 96 yards on seven grabs.
"Good things happen to those who wait," said Stovall.
Bowden said he'd watch film and have the quarterback "squared away by Monday". Trainers advised against Rix reentering the game Saturday, though he requested the opportunity.
"That's OK because I wanted to see what Wyatt could do," Bowden said. "I just want to see somebody win. If it happens to be Wyatt, good. If it happens to be Chris, that's good too."