CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On one of the most important nights in Clemson football history, the Tigers had a clear case of the yips early.
But they also had quarterback Deshaun Watson, who put on a show that will most assuredly land him in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation and, more importantly, ensure his team a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Clemson completed a perfect regular season on Saturday night in a decidedly orange Bank of America Stadium, even though the Tigers' 45-37 victory over North Carolina was anything but perfect. But hey, the Tigers didn't enter the ACC championship game needing style points. They just needed a win, and Watson was there to deliver, along with a determined bunch of his teammates.
"He's not just the best player in this conference. He's the best player in the country," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of his sophomore quarterback, who was selected as the ACC Player of the Year. "If you sit down and watch all 13 games, I don't know how you can argue with that."
Just watching Saturday's game was proof enough that Watson can put this team on his back and carry it, particularly when the Tigers need carrying. And that's what the great ones do.
"I just needed to provide a spark in the second half," said Watson, who passed for 289 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 131 yards and two more touchdowns. "I saw things moving slow in the first half, all the stopped drives on third down, and it was time to change that."
It wasn't that the Tigers were being pushed around. They were just sloppy, starting with four personal foul penalties in the first half. They also missed a field goal to open the game, and punter Andy Teasdall went rogue in the second quarter when he faked a punt on fourth-and-15 from his own 30 and was swarmed under by the Tar Heels after a short gain.
For the record, Swinney said there was no fake punt and joked, "That was [Teasdall] losing his mind. He went crazy on me. I don't have an answer for it.
"He went Superman or something. I have no answer. He doesn't, either."
And neither did North Carolina's defense for Watson, who entered the game as the only player in the country with at least 750 rushing yards and 3,000 passing yards.
As Heisman poses go, Watson said he might have struck a few in his room back at Clemson. He could be striking the pose for real next weekend, as the Heisman Trophy voting figures to be as close as it's been in years.
Watson, though, was thinking bigger picture.
"I just wanted to prove to the world that we're one of the best teams in the country and we earned that spot in the top four," said Watson, who now is 17-1 as the Tigers' starting quarterback.
In a lot of ways, it was a performance that mirrored what we saw out of Watson in Clemson's 23-13 win over Florida State on Nov. 7. The Tigers were also shaky in the first half of that game and trailed 10-6 at halftime. Watson came out blazing afterward and finished with 107 rushing yards, not to mention going 28-of-42 passing for 297 yards and a touchdown.
"He can beat you in so many ways," Swinney said.
So, it seems, can these Tigers, who are likely to be the No. 1 seed when the selection committee unveils its rankings at noon ET on Sunday. Watson has been the guy driving the train most of the season, but it's a defense that has also played lights out, particularly in the big games, despite an exodus to the NFL draft last year. The Tigers lost their entire defensive line, but there's been very little drop-off this season.
That's a credit to defensive coordinator Brent Venables, as well as defensive line coaches Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby.
But it also hasn't been a one-man show on offense. Sophomore running back Wayne Gallman churned out 187 rushing yards against the Tar Heels and has 1,332 yards on the season. An offensive line that was unproven and young has held up better than anyone expected. And similar to the past few years under Swinney, this is a program that is at its best in close games.
Saturday's spread was eight points, but Clemson is 11-1 in games decided by seven points or less since the beginning of the 2011 season.
What it all adds up to is the kind of pizza party on Sunday at Clemson's Death Valley that would make them envious even in Naples. OK, maybe not. But Swinney promised it's one Clemson fans won't want to miss.
"Championship teams have to win different ways," Swinney said. "We're just going to have pepperoni pizza tomorrow, but it's supreme pizza with this team. We've got a little bit of everything. I mean, we found ways to win, different ways, whether it's a big kick or a big stop. We've played in all kinds of elements, and it's their will to win and their will to prepare.
"These guys have been focused all year long, even though everybody tries to talk them out of being focused every week. It seems like every week we're supposed to lose. Every week, it's a trap game. Every week, it's this or that. But they just keep about their business."
And they keep following No. 4's lead.
"He's Secretariat," Swinney said. "You cut him open, and he's got an oversized heart. He's special."