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High of the Tiger: Clemson shows heart in riveting victory

Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire

It sounds like a sappy movie line or the ultimate in coach-speak, but after Saturday night’s riveting result from Tallahassee, it’s so true.

Clemson DOES have the heart of a champion.

In a game filled with huge plays and huge mistakes — on both sides — the Tigers showed a quality that suddenly allowed them to see the College Football Playoff finish line.

Clemson just knows how to win.

That was evident in the twisting, turning, maddening and captivating 37-34 triumph against the Florida State Seminoles, who put forth a game effort, but showed once again that they aren’t good enough this season.

There were three lead changes in the fourth quarter, and you got the feeling that whoever had the ball last would find a way to win. In truth, FSU found a way to lose by self-destructing with a pair of crushing penalties after reaching the Clemson 34-yard line, the fringe of field-goal range and potential overtime.

The Seminoles (5-3, 2-3) never got the chance for a miracle. Clemson’s defense, thought to be suspect in the preseason, brought the heat on FSU freshman quarterback Deondre Francois and he was twice sacked before any desperation passes could be attempted.

Maybe, just maybe, this season will ultimately belong to Clemson, which has weathered some so-so early performances and stared into the abyss when N.C. State lined up for a 33-yard field-goal attempt that likely would’ve extinguished any national-title hopes.

It missed.

Clemson, wiggling free, might never look back until it’s holding the trophy.

“You can’t ever doubt Clemson University,’’ Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “We want to be special. We want to be champions.’’

Saturday night’s performance left no doubts about those possibilities.

Clemson (8-0, 5-0 ACC) trailed by eight points heading to the fourth quarter in a stadium that had continually brought out the worst in the Tigers.

It did not look promising.

Back and forth went the game, though, with FSU offering a potential dagger on Dalvin Cook’s 8-yard touchdown run with 3:06 remaining. When the two-point conversion attempted failed, FSU led 34-29.

Watson didn’t need long to give Clemson the advantage.

He directed a five-play, 75-yard drive, which was capped by a 34-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Leggett, who took advantage of a busted coverage. He went airborne after a sideline tackle, somehow used his left arm to maintain balance and got into the end zone with 2:06 remaining.

The Seminoles got one last opportunity, but their mistakes and Clemson’s defense wouldn’t allow another lead change.

Cook was tremendous, rushing for 169 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. Francois was battered, but hung in there.

Their efforts couldn’t mask other deficiencies, though. The Seminoles now have three ACC losses after having three league defeats combined in the past four seasons.

Sometimes, it’s easy to analyze a result.

Sometimes, one team is just better with a superior blend of preparation and execution.

That was the case Saturday night.

Clemson’s work is not done, but at this point, it belongs in the final four, probably joining Alabama, Michigan and Washington. Will it stay that way? Probably not. We’ve grown accustomed to upsets and surprises, so buckle your seat belts.

For now, though, the Tigers must be saluted for answering every challenge, finishing off FSU, winning in Tallahassee for the first time since 2006, and capturing the program’s ninth consecutive road victory.

Clemson has the heart of a champion.

It’s still beating strong.

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