Clemson football: Defending champion Tigers relying on strong run game in undefeated start
CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson is off and running for its latest undefeated start.
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Hearn, in a right-place, right-time moment, picked up Bryant's second quarter fumble and took it 12 yards to continue Clemson's first touchdown drive.
"I actually thought about whether I should try to juke the defender," said Hearn, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound junior. "But I just decided to go straight ahead and get what I could."
That seems like the preferred mode of attack for the Tigers this year after several seasons of throwing the ball around with strong-armed quarterbacks — and Atlantic Coast Conference players of the year — in Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson.
In coach Dabo Swinney's previous eight seasons, the Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) have had more passing yards and rushing. But a program known for great rushers like Terry Allen, Kevin Mack and C.J. Spiller turned back to its roots as a running school.
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The Tigers have 1,091 yards rushing and just 953 through the air with 17 of their 20 touchdowns so far this year coming on the ground.
"You have to do what you can to be effective," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "This is what defenses have given us."
It helps when you have several strong runners and a quarterback in Bryant who seems just as happy to run through a hole as to pass over the top of a defense.
Bryant is second on the team with 268 yards and a team high seven rushing touchdowns. The leader is rising first-year speedster Etienne, a Louisiana native who defied many fans in his home state when he picked the Tigers of Clemson over, well, the Tigers of LSU.
Etienne, still fourth in Clemson's four-man rushing rotation, has run for 100 yards in the Tigers past two wins. He had a late 81-yard touchdown run at Louisville. His 50-yard scoring run late Saturday gave Clemson some breathing room and a 21-7 lead with about five minutes left. Etienne added a 10-yard run to end the Tigers' scoring.
Etienne said his mindset when he gets the ball is to find the end zone. "I can't get carried away with trying to hit the big play every time, but this was the best experience I've had so far," he said after beating the Eagles.
Clemson's running back corps is as deep and effective as at any time in Swinney's tenure. He had NFL runners Spiller and Andre Ellington together his first season. These four, including C.J. Fuller, Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice along with Etienne, have all had winning moments so far.
Choice's 6-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter this past Saturday put Clemson ahead to stay. Feaster, at 210 pounds, did the bulk of the work at wearing down Boston College with 73 yards on 20 punishing carries.
"Nobody's jealous," Etienne said. "We all just help each other to get better in our games."
Clemson's running style could serve them well this week when it heads to No. 12 Virginia Tech, the Tigers fourth top-15 opponent in the past three weeks. Ball control could go a long way to slowing down the Hokies (4-0), who are permitting only 108 yards a game on the ground this season.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said his players will be prepared for their first ACC game. "We're going to be challenged tremendously," he said. "This is a dynamic football team, dynamic athletes."
Especially in the backfield where Clemson has run for 297 yards or more in three of its four wins.
"It wasn't pretty at first," Bryant said against Boston College. "But in the fourth quarter, we got it going. It was a complete game when we put it together."