The arrival of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham brought renewed optimism to the Auburn offense all offseason. All it took was a matchup with the Clemson defense to deflate the enthusiasm.
No. 3 Clemson got an enormous early-season home win as it mounts a national title defense, topping No. 13 Auburn 14-6 on Saturday night at Death Valley.
The biggest story heading into the game was the new quarterbacks, Stidham (trying to revive the passing game) and Clemson's Kelly Bryant (replacing Deshaun Watson). In the game itself, the story became the dominance of the defenses against those quarterbacks. By the end, the story became the dominance of the Clemson defense, more than anything.
Stidham completed 13 of 24 passes for 79 yards and was sacked 11 times, finishing with 18 rushes for -42 yards (sacks count as rush attempts in college football). Stidham averaged just 3.3 yards per pass attempt and took only two fewer sacks than he had pass completions. He didn't get help, as Auburn's offensive line was overwhelmed by the nation's top defensive line, and Kamryn Pettway -- returning from a Week 1 suspension -- rushed 22 times for 74 yards.
In total, Auburn managed 117 yards on 66 plays, an average of 1.8 yards per play. It allowed those 11 sacks in one game after allowing a total of 19 sacks in 13 games last season.
Auburn actually led early, with a field goal on its first drive, then a field goal after a fumble recovery on its third possession. However, it didn't score in the final 44 minutes of the game. After a similarly brutal start, Clemson's offense found life late in the first half behind Bryant, who hit big passes to Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud, then ran it in for a three-yard touchdown with 48 seconds left in the first half.
To start the second half, Bryant directed an eight-play, 79-yard touchdown drive, capped by his 27-yard run for a touchdown. With 11:47 left in the third quarter, Clemson had all the points it would need.
Auburn managed 20 total yards in the entire second half on six possessions, the tone being set by Tre Lamar's fourth-and-three sack around midfield in the third quarter.
Tre Lamar with the sack! pic.twitter.com/eLKRqmPkGW— ClemsonEditz (@ClemsonEditz_) September 10, 2017
On its final possession, Stidham was sacked three times in a row, including a third-down stop by Austin Bryant to force a punt with under four minutes left. Auburn never got the ball back.
Austin Bryant finished with four sacks. Christian Wilkins had two. Dorian O'Daniel had 1 ½. The deep and talented Clemson defense spread the wealth, living in Auburn's backfield all night. And with that going on, Clemson got what it needed to win from Kelly Bryant on offense: The junior quarterback completed 19 of 29 for 181 yards and rushed 19 times for 59 yards and two TDs. It wasn't a pretty night for Clemson's offense, but against a stout Auburn defense, it came up with the two big drives it needed.
Clemson scored a playoff-case-boosting nonconference win over an SEC team in which it allowed just six points, and it will continue its pursuit of a third straight playoff bid with a road trip to Louisville next week, where its defensive line will be faced with Heisman winner Lamar Jackson … but also a vulnerable Cardinals offensive line.
It'll be hard not to like Clemson's chances, given its fantastic reputation in big games the past few years under Dabo Swinney.
No. 3 Clemson drops No. 13 Auburn 14-6. Clemson has won its last six games in AP-ranked vs AP-ranked matchups (school record).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 10, 2017
With Watson gone, Clemson's offense was bound to take a step back this year, even if it's still effective. But if the defense continues to play like it did Saturday, the postseason destination might be similar anyway.