ATLANTA — It doesn’t change how the last season ended, but for Clemson it’s the best possible way to start the new season.
Clemson, with an improved defense and just enough offense, beat Auburn 26-19 on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.
For Clemson, it’s a measure of redemption after an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
For the ACC, it was a shot of respect after N.C. State lost to Tennessee in the first ACC-SEC matchup in Atlanta on Friday.
“That’s what champions do,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They respond.”
Clemson has been maligned all offseason for the Orange Bowl disaster, and a late-season collapse. Instead of a celebration of the school’s first ACC title in 20 years, it has been a summer of jokes at the expense of the team’s defense.
New coordinator Brent Venables solved some of the turnstile problems that plagued Clemson’s defense during a 2-4 finish to the 2011 season, after an 8-0 start.
Clemson’s defense held Auburn to one touchdown and four field goals and protected a late lead when it had to when Auburn got the ball back, down 7, with 1:24 left in the game.
Leading up to the game, Venables, who replaced coordinator Kevin Steele after the Orange Bowl, reminded the players about the prevailing wisdom of the Tigers’ defense.
“People don’t think too much of us,” Venables said. “I think we embraced what the opinion of us was.”
Auburn limited Clemson’s potent offense to one touchdown and three field goals, through three quarters, but Clemson found the end zone when it mattered.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd’s 4-yard touchdown pass to receiver Nuke Hopkins at 9:17 in the fourth put Clemson up for good, 23-19.
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro tacked on an 18-yard field goal, his fourth of the game, with 1:24 left for Clemson.
Playing without top receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson’s offense had to use different options. Running back Andre Ellington ran for 231 yards, while Boyd connected with Hopkins 13 times, a new single-game school record, for 119 yards.
“We had Sammy’s back,” Ellington said. “We knew we had to pick up the slack.”
Watkins, an All-ACC receiver as a freshman, will miss the first two games because of an offseason marijuana arrest. Boyd’s TD pass to Hopkins atoned for his interception on the first play of the fourth quarter which set up Auburn for a field goal.
Linebacker Daren Bates picked off Boyd, who finished with 208 passing yards and another 58 rushing, at 14:53 of the fourth and set up Auburn’s offense at Clemson’s 35. Clemson’s defense, which features four new starters, held Auburn to a 36-yard field goal, the fourth by kicker Cody Parker, for a 19-16 advantage.
As usual when these two Tigers get together, it was a tight, entertaining game. They played to overtime in 2010 at Auburn and at the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl in the same stadium.
Auburn won both of those games but not this one.
Clemson pieced together a 13-10 lead at the half with a combination of Ellington’s running, timely turnovers and Hopkins’ toughness.
Ellington set up Clemson’s only touchdown of the first half with a 67-yard run, the last 60 of which came after it looked like Auburn linebacker Jake Holland had Ellington wrapped up.
Ellington spun out of the tackle and then out-raced Auburn’s defense down to the Auburn 7-yard line. Roderick McDowell did the rest, with a 7-yard touchdown run on the next play for a 13-7 advantage at 7:26 in the second quarter.
Clemson got field goals of 24 and 40 yards from Catanzaro in the first half.