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Kicking game comes through for Clemson in Tallahassee this time

AP Photo/Richard Shiro

There are certain plays from Clemson’s 37-34 win at Florida State on Saturday that will define the game for years to come.

Deshaun Watson’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett that put the Tigers ahead with just over two minutes to go will be one of them. Watson’s 20-yard throw to Hunter Renfrow on 3rd-and-21 that put Clemson in a manageable fourth-down situation also falls under that category. Even Dalvin Cook’s 70-yard scamper to the end zone toward the end of the third quarter marked a memorable moment in a losing effort.

What’s easy to forget — and shouldn’t get lost — is the clutch kicking by Clemson’s Greg Huegel. That’s especially true after the team’s last trip to Tallahassee.

The Tigers’ 2014 loss to the Seminoles was as agonizing as it gets. Falling 23-17 in overtime is painful enough, but the way Dabo Swinney’s group lost made it exponentially worse.

Swinney called upon kicker Ammon Lakip early in that matchup for a 23-yard attempt — what would normally be a chip shot. Lakip missed, well wide to the left.

Then came the fourth quarter, with the game tied 10-10. To start the final period, Lakip trotted onto the field to try a kick from 40 yards.

Wide right.

In overtime, Clemson faced a 4th-and-1 situation from the Florida State 16-yard line. Rather than rely on his struggling kicker, Swinney opted to go for it. Running back Adam Choice was stopped short of the first-down marker, and two plays later, FSU running back Karlos Williams found the end zone to seal the victory.

Whether he wanted to or not, Swinney had to lean on the kicking game again in Saturday’s contest in Tallahassee. Huegel wasn’t overwhelmed by the spotlight.

The sophomore’s first attempt came from, coincidentally, 23 yards out. He drilled it between the uprights. He also nailed a 34-yarder in the third quarter.

Huegel finished 2-of-2 on extra points, but his biggest kick of the night came with 5:25 left in the game and the Tigers behind 28-26. A miss would have given Florida State the ball with excellent field position and a two-point lead.

But he made it.

That alone wasn’t enough to lock up the win for Clemson. Cook scored on the next drive to put Florida State back ahead, and the Tigers’ offense responded with the Watson-to-Leggett strike as well as a two-point conversion with Watson finding Mike Williams in the back of the end zone. Then, of course, Clemson’s defensive front made it impossible for FSU to string together a game-winning drive, sacking quarterback Deondre Francois twice in the last 30 seconds.

All of that happened after the final field goal, leaving Huegel’s kick lost in the shuffle. Watson’s 7-of-11 passing for 134 yards and a touchdown in the final quarter will overshadow that moment in highlight reels, but the Tigers likely would have been in over their heads without the clutch boot of Huegel.

With the win, Clemson’s 10-year drought in Tallahassee came to an end. More importantly, the Tigers are still a shoe-in for the College Football Playoff as long as they keep winning.

The good news for them: They’re in excellent shape if any of their remaining games come down to the kicking game.

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