You could have posed the same question to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney 50 times in 50 ways, and he would have replied the same way with the same level of conviction: He was not sending out that field-goal unit in the last minute of Saturday night’s opener at Auburn.
The reasoning in favor of attempting a 37-yard field goal was obvious: Make it and No. 2 Clemson would lead by two scores in a stadium where the program hadn’t won since 1950. Game over. But Swinney was convinced, right or wrong, that the risk of that choice far outweighed the potential reward.
"I wanted to eliminate any kind of block" opportunity,” he said. "A block-scoop-score" scenario that hypothetically could have given Auburn its first lead of this game.
So Swinney went conservative, handing the ball to running back Wayne Gallman, hoping at best Gallman would gain the 4 yards for a first down and, at worst, would have the good sense to fall down in-bounds to keep the clock running a few seconds before Auburn got its last chance to score.
Problem: Gallman had a brain cramp and went out of bounds. Auburn got the ball 85 yards from a score with 40 seconds left and, preposterous as this might sound, drove far enough for quarterback Sean White to throw two Hail Mary’s into the end zone for what could have been a winning touchdown.
Safety Jadar Johnson successfully defended both passes, but suffice it to say a 19-13 Clemson victory over an unranked Auburn team was less than impressive, even on the road.
Swinney said he wanted to place the game in the hands of Clemson’s defense, and there was not a hint of irony in his voice. Yet the irony existed. Clemson entered this season with breathtaking talent and experience on offense and a youthful sense of uncertainty on defense.
Clemson’s starting defensive ends last season were both gobbled up in the first 34 picks of the NFL draft. Clemson also lost an elite cornerback in Mackensie Alexander.
This defense was considered such an afterthought that coordinator Brent Venables joked Tuesday that the media have no use for him this season.
Yet the most popular interview past midnight at Jordan-Hare Stadium was Venables, addressing how the defense saved Clemson’s playoff chances.
Venables is a gregarious fellow and a storyteller. He was asked about Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s love of the unpredictable, so Venables told a story about a rumor Clemson heard that Malzahn was experimenting with a throw-back offense from generations ago.
Venables countered old school with new school, Googling up "Best defense for the Wing-T?" Turns out Malzahn ran the Wing-T, and some YouTube video from high school football actually helped Clemson prepare for that strategy.
It was that odd a night in Alabama.
Venables’ defense was strong Saturday and that was partly because of the remarkable maturity and talent of freshman tackle Dexter Lawrence, who grew up in suburban Raleigh. Lawrence is going to be a star. In his first college game he had a sack, a pass break-up and tied up Auburn’s blockers whenever he was on the field.
As for Clemson’s current stars, there was nothing to particularly knock, but the collective productivity elicited a shrug.
Gallman gained 123 yards on 30 carries, but not staying in-bounds in that late-game situation was frustrating to the coaches. Wide receiver Mike Williams gained 174 yards on nine catches a year removed from a neck fracture in the 2015 opener. But he fumbled to squander a prime scoring opportunity and Swinney said Williams left some plays "on the field."
Watson said he played "OK" in completing 19 of 34 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. Nothing wrong with that if you’re a sophomore playing quarterback in the Colonial. But Watson is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft, and he didn’t look dominant Saturday.
Someone asked Watson about his next conversation with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Newton, who was at this game, is simultaneously an Auburn icon and Watson’s mentor.
Watson said he has no intention of trash-talking the next time he and Newton chat.
Wise move. This game was no cause to brag. It was a game to survive, learn from and dismiss.