Sammy who? DeAndre Hopkins set a school record with 13 receptions, filling the void left by star receiver Sammy Watkins, and Andre Ellington rushed for 231 yards to lead No. 14 Clemson to a 26-19 victory over Auburn in the season opener Saturday night.
Playing before a 50-50 crowd at the Georgia Dome – basically halfway between the two campuses – Clemson shook off any hangover from last season’s embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl and showed plenty of offense against Auburn even without Watkins, who was suspended for the first two games after an offseason drug arrest.
The second half was a battle of field goals before Tajh Boyd lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins, who made a brilliant, twisting catch in the corner of the end zone with 9:17 remaining.
”No one is celebrating more than Sammy Watkins back in Clemson,” coach Dabo Swinney said.
Ellington broke off a couple of long runs to set up a chip-shot field goal with just over a minute remaining for the final margin. Auburn got the ball back one more time, but with only one timeout. The Southeastern Conference team didn’t even get it across midfield, the game ending on a desperate heave by new quarterback Kiehl Frazier.
The 5-foot-10 Ellington scooted around and through the Auburn defense on 26 carries, the longest of them a 68-yarder that set up Clemson’s first touchdown.
”I certainly didn’t get it all on my own,” Ellington said. ”I’m just thankful to have a great line in front of me.”
Hopkins broke Airese Currie’s school record of 12 receptions against Middle Tennessee State in 2003, finishing with 119 yards receiving.
Boyd did his part, too, completing 24 of 34 for 208 yards and carrying the ball 19 times for 58 yards. Clemson finished with 320 yards rushing and 528 yards overall, marring the debut of new Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, returning to the stadium where he spent the past four seasons with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
”Our credit goes to the guys up front,” Swinney said. ”When you rush for 320 yards and win the turnover margin, you’re going to win a bunch of ballgames.”
Frazier had a 54-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake, hitting the receiver in stride to put Auburn ahead 7-3 late in the first quarter. The sophomore, who beat out last year’s starter, Clint Mosey, for the job in fall camp, showed plenty of potential but is still a work in progress. Frazier passed for 194 yards despite completing just 11 of 27.
”I did all right,” Frazier said, ”but I made a lot of mistakes and left some plays out there on the field.”
Tre Mason led Auburn in rushing with 107 yards.
Both teams kicked four field goals. Cody Parkey connected from 37, 46, 27 and 36 yards for Auburn, the last of them putting his team ahead with 12:50 remaining. Chandler Catanzaro was just as accurate for Clemson, booting it through from 24, 40, 37 and 18 yards.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Boyd threw behind tight end Sam Cooper, the ball bouncing off his hands and right to Auburn linebacker Daren Bates for an interception. He returned it to the Clemson 35.
Mason ran it three times, taking the ball inside the Clemson 10, but a crucial holding penalty on Greg Robinson, a redshirt freshman making his first college appearance at left tackle, cost the Tigers a chance for the second TD. They wound up settling for yet another field goal by Parkey.
That wasn’t enough to hold off Clemson.
Boyd broke off a 27-yard run after faking a handoff out of the shotgun and scrambled for another first down on third-and-5, keeping the drive going with a 10-yard gain. Ellington slid around right end for 8 yards, then took off up the middle for a 9-yard run. Finally, on first-and-goal at the Auburn 4, Clemson stuck it in the end zone.
Credit Hopkins for that. Boyd took one step back and floated a pass toward the corner. Even though cornerback Chris Davis grabbed at the junior receiver, drawing a flag, Hopkins went up and got it. He corkscrewed his body around to snag the ball, managing to get a foot down before he tumbled out of bounds.
Frazier had a second-quarter interception that was essentially a punt, lofting a desperation pass down the field on third-and-15 that was picked off by Rashard Hall way down at the Clemson 15.
Turns out, that just gave Ellington more room to run. He burst down the field on his 68-yarder, and the officials tacked on a few more yards when Jonathan Mincy was flagged for a personal foul at the end of the play. On the very next snap, Roderick McDowell scored on a 7-yard run to put Clemson ahead 13-7.
Clemson gave the maligned Atlantic Coast Conference a much-needed win over an SEC opponent on the second of back-to-back openers at the Georgia Dome between the two leagues. Tennessee romped past North Carolina State 35-21 the previous night, a game marred by the death of a 20-year-old fan who fell out of the upper deck.