A high-stress day for Clemson ended up with a deep exhale for both the 2020 season and well beyond.
With Trevor Lawrence watching from his off-campus apartment after testing positive for COVID-19, Clemson trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half against unranked Boston College. They trailed by 15 at halftime, the most a top-ranked team has trailed at home at halftime since 1950.
But all the angst, worrying and sweaty palms were relieved after a precocious performance by freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who calmly led Clemson to a 34-28 comeback victory with an authoritative second half. Uiagalelei, one of the country’s top quarterback recruits in 2020, showed why Clemson will be in good hands while Trevor Lawrence is off filming shampoo commercials and attempting to turn around the Jets.
Uiagalelei finished with 341 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, including turning the game in the third quarter with a 30-yard touchdown run on a fourth down and hitting Amari Rodgers for an eight-yard touchdown. He finished 30-for-41 passing on the day.
This was the day for Uiagalelei where promise and potential met reality and results, as the Clemson faithful suddenly transformed from fretting the College Football Playoff in 2020 to feeling good about 2021.
“The thing that stands out to me the most was his composure and maturity,” said Jason Negro, the head coach at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California, where Uiagalelei played in high school. “He was absolutely unfazed in the moment. He looks like he’s been starting in college football for 25 to 30 games into his career, not his first start.”
Lawrence won’t be back for the game at No. 4 Notre Dame next Saturday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced after the BC win.
While no one is in Lawrence’s category in college football, Uiagalelei showed the early flashes of why he could someday get into the sport’s rare air. He showed elite arm strength, polished touch and the moment never looked too big for him.
The best indicator of Uiagalelei’s future may be his response to his lowest moment of the day. He made a freshman mistake late in the first quarter, handing the ball off way too high to Travis Etienne that resulted in a fumble on the goal line. BC’s Brandon Sebastian returned the fumble 97 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 Boston College lead.
From there, Uiagalelei didn’t flinch. Clemson scored on its next five drives and took the lead early in the fourth quarter on a 17-yard run by Etienne.
“That was a 14-point swing,” Negro said of the fumble. “It didn’t derail his confidence. That’s what I was most proud of, you have to stay even-keeled and he did a pretty good job responding after that situation. That was a big thing.”
Uiagalelei got a big assist throughout the afternoon from Etienne, who is the ACC’s all-time leading rusher and finished the day with 84 yards on 20 carries. Etienne was a favorite target out of the backfield as well, finishing with seven catches for 140 yards.
Now we’re left to figure out who Clemson really is, which is a difficult thing to determine. Clemson’s young players grew up plenty on Saturday, as the defense shut out BC in the second half after BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec torched the Tigers in the first half.
Another of Clemson’s young stars, five-star defensive lineman Bryan Bresee, pressured Jerkovec in the end zone to force a safety with 1:18 remaining. That gave Clemson a 34-28 lead and extinguished the final embers of hope for a BC upset.
When judging how playoff worthy Clemson is after this game, it’s important to remember that the Tigers were missing much more than Lawrence. They were also missing receivers Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata, star defensive linemen Tyler Davis and Mike Jones Jr. and linchpin linebacker Jamie Skalski, among others.
BC looked for much of the afternoon that it could create another moment like Doug Flutie’s heave in 1984 or David Gordon’s field goal at Notre Dame back in 1993, the last time BC upset another No. 1 team.
Instead, today will be remembered as the day we all learned the name D.J. Uiagalelei. (The shots in the stands of his dad, Big Dave, brought up memories of his career as a celebrity bodyguard.)
Uiagalelei arrived, saving the day for Clemson and painting a bright picture for life after Trevor.
“It’s a phenomenal performance,” Negro said. “Sticking in and playing the way he has. Especially when Clemson was not playing their best football.”
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