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Slow start, big finish: Clemson topples Charleston Southern in Tigers’ home opener

This was supposed to be a get-right game for a Clemson football team that just spent a week in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons.

About that.

The No. 25 Tigers pulled away and took care of business with Charleston Southern, 66-17, in their home opener at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

But it wasn’t exactly the spotless victory one would expect from a preseason top 10 team coming off a 21-point season-opening loss and facing an FCS team that, outside of having 22 fewer scholarship players, barely won its own season opener against a Division II team.

Quarterback Cade Klubnik had 315 passing yards and four touchdowns, the offense racked up 679 total yards and the defense limited Charleston Southern to 1.6 yards per play in a 49-point win.

Wide receiver Beaux Collins also went for nine catches, 137 yards and a touchdown in the victory, showcasing some of the go-to guy potential Clemson needs from its wide receivers this season.

But the Tigers were sloppy with the ball for a second straight game — just like they were in Monday’s 28-7 loss to Duke, which featured an interception, two fumbles and three scoreless red zone trips — and the team still has things to clean up with Florida Atlantic and No. 4 Florida State on deck the next two weekends.

Sep 9, 2023; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) passes near Charleston Southern defensive line Matt Suriano (57) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 9, 2023; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) passes near Charleston Southern defensive line Matt Suriano (57) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson game recap

It took less than a quarter for turnover issues to pop up. The Tigers were going for it on fourth down on their own territory for the second straight possession – the first resulted in a first down and opening drive touchdown to go up 7-0 — when Klubnik mishandled a snap on fourth and 1.

Mafah bobbled the ensuing handoff and Charleston Southern picked up the loose ball, returning it 25 yards for a near-touchdown and scoring one play later to tie the game at 7-7.

Then the Buccaneers, who compete in the FCS Big South and got a $400,000 paycheck from Clemson for Saturday’s game, made their trip to Death Valley extra-memorable.

CSU surprised Clemson with an onside kick and recovered it after that game-tying touchdown. That didn’t result in any points, but defensive back Leon Thomas’ 67-yard interception return touchdown off a puzzling Klubnik lofted pass certainly did.

Charleston Southern, in its first season under coach Gabe Giardina after going 2-8 last season, needed a goal-line stand and a false start penalty to sneak past North Greenville (an NCAA Division II school) in last Saturday’s season opener.

On Saturday, it was leading the No. 25 team in the country and a two-time national champion 14-7 at home with 2:35 remaining in the first quarter.

Clemson rebounded with a game-tying touchdown on its next drive — a one-yard touchdown by Mafah — and went up 21-14 on a five-yard pass from Klubnik to Williams, the dynamic in-state slot receiver who’s quickly becoming his favorite target.

Still, CSU added a field goal before halftime and there were scattered boos here as Clemson — which closed as a 50.5-point betting favorite — jogged into its revamped locker room leading an FCS “buy game” opponent by only a touchdown at half (24-17).

The Tigers’ offense, to its credit, never struggled to rack up yards or first downs Saturday and cleaned up its execution in the second half. Clemson embarked on back-to-back-to-back scoring drives in the third quarter, ending, respectively, in touchdowns by Mafah (5-yard rush), wide receiver Beaux Collins (69-yard catch) and tight end Josh Sapp.

Add in linebacker Wade Woodaz’s 35-yard pick six — with a hat tip to cornerback Jeadyn Lukus for knocking the ball loose — and the blowout was eventually. Clemson outscored CSU 28-0 in the third quarter, letting its depth shine and going up 52-17 entering the final period.

By game’s end, Clemson’s unanswered scoring run was 42-0.

The Tigers were down two key players Saturday, as wide receiver Cole Turner and nickelback Andrew Mukuba didn’t play due to undisclosed injuries after starting in Monday’s season opener.

The fourth quarter saw a number of true freshmen and walk-ons contribute, running back Jay Haynes score twice and all three primary Clemson backup QBs (Hunter Helms, Paul Tyson, Christopher Vizzina) cycle in for Klubnik with the game well out of reach — something Clemson couldn’t feel for a minute Monday.

Next Clemson game

Who: Clemson (1-1, 0-1 ACC) vs. Florida Atlantic

When: 8 p.m. next Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium in Clemson

Watch: ACC Network