USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg breaks down the latest Amway Coaches Poll.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week the Tigers “certainly will miss” quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.
He was right. It’s just that no really believed him.
With freshman D.J. Uiagalelei starting in place of Lawrence, No. 1 Clemson was forced to scratch and claw out from a significant hole to beat Boston College 34-28.
With the comeback, Clemson avoided losing to an ACC opponent for the first time since falling to Syracuse on Oct. 13, 2007.
It never felt easy against an opponent that has exceeded expectations under first-year coach Jeff Hafley, formerly the defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
The Eagles dramatically outplayed Clemson in the first half behind a game plan that churned out long drives on offense and took advantage of Lawrence's absence from the passing game. Comfortable keying instead on star running back Travis Etienne, the Eagles forced a crucial turnover and held an 18-point lead late in the second quarter.
Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) spins the ball out of his hands after scoring a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against Syracuse in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (Ken Ruinard/Pool Photo via AP) (Photo: The Associated Press)
One of the top recruits in the 2020 class, Uiagalelei completed 30 of his 41 attempts for 342 yards and three touchdowns, one coming on the ground. After a sluggish start, Etienne was finished with 84 yards on 20 carries and led Clemson with 140 receiving yards.
The two were involved in a crucial play early in the second quarter: With Clemson down 14-7 and on the Eagles’ 1-yard line, Uiagalelei and Etienne bobbled a handoff that was returned 97 yards for a touchdown.
With just under nine minutes left in the second quarter, Boston College embarked on a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive to push the lead to 28-10. Clemson would make a 50-yard field goal to make it 28-13 at halftime.
That late score seemed to spark Clemson. The Tigers scored on a 56-yard drive to make it 28-20 four minutes into the second half and again with six minutes remaining in the third quarter to trim the Eagles' lead to 28-26. (The offense attempted and failed on a two-point conversion to tie the game.)
Clemson moved ahead 32-28 with 11:34 left on Etienne's 17-yard touchdown run and made two defensive stands late in the fourth quarter.
Uiagalelei was healthy enough to play but slowed by injuries that limited his effectiveness as a runner, which played into the Eagles' ability to key on Etienne. But Uiagalelei took advantage of this focus with a 30-yard touchdown run to open scoring in the second half.
Given all the subplots at play — a true freshman making his first career start, replacing one of the great quarterbacks in recent history, down big to a seemingly inferior opponent — Uiagalelei played tremendously, increasing the mushrooming hype around the Tigers' heir apparent at the position.
Lawrence wasn’t the only missing contributor. Clemson was down another three starters on defense, including a pair of all-conference picks in defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebacker James Skalski.
While narrow and often in doubt, the result will not have a profound impact, if any impact at all, on Clemson's resume for the College Football Playoff.
For starters, the Tigers are a lock for the top four if unbeaten. And even with one loss, Clemson is almost certainly set for the national semifinals as conference champions; winning the ACC would involve beating Notre Dame twice.