AUBURN, Ala. — Clemson’s Dabo Swinney kept his kicker on the sideline and put the game in star quarterback Deshaun Watson’s hands.
The decision worked in the second-ranked Tigers’ 19-13 win over Auburn on Saturday night, but not without a few more anxious moments in an opener filled with them.
Swinney opted to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the 17 instead of kicking a field goal, and Wayne Gallman was stopped short by Tray Matthews — a failed call that could have backfired.
“We just didn’t want to take a shot at the field goal right there,” he said. “We felt like as good as we had played defensively, with them having no timeouts, it was going to be very difficult for them to go score.”
Greg Huegel’s extra-point attempt earlier in the quarter had hit the upright. Gallman had been knocked out of bounds on the previous play, stopping the clock to help leave Auburn more time.
“Unbelievable,” Swinney said. “And now we’re fighting for our life there at the end.”
Watson passed for 248 yards, including 174 to Mike Williams in his return from a neck injury in last season’s opener. Gallman carried 30 times for 123 yards.
Clemson dominated the stat sheet in the first half — with a 233-38 advantage in total yards — but led only 10-3 and both scores came after defensive penalties on third-down plays.
“That is one of the best teams in college football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Holding those guys to 19 points was really unbelievable as far as the effort.”
Clemson struggled to put the opener away even though Auburn produced little offense for much of the game while swapping three quarterbacks in and out. Finally, Watson hit former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow in the back of the end zone on third and goal from the 16 with 9:59 left in the fourth quarter.
That was a lifetime in this game.
Ben Boulware’s subsequent goal line interception only provided a temporary reprieve for a team that made the national championship game last season and is among the favorites to win it this time. Auburn finally got a touchdown with 3:22 left on a 9-yard direct snap run by Kerryon Johnson, and Clemson’s failed fourth-down try deep in Auburn territory set up another shot with 40 seconds and 85 yards to go.
Sean White drove the offense to the Clemson 40, but two desperation heaves into the end zone fell incomplete, with the second getting batted around.
CLEMSON: If Watson didn’t exactly pick right up from his 478-yard bonanza in the national championship game against Alabama, he was still good enough. And Williams provides Clemson’s offense with yet another threat.
AUBURN: Auburn’s offensive problems continued from last season, with three quarterbacks attempting passes on the first six plays. The defense made some big stops and held Clemson to 6 of 17 on third downs. Daniel Carlson’s 53-yard field goal was the Auburn-record sixth of 50-plus yards.
Barring a dominant win by No. 4 Florida State over No. 11 Mississippi on Monday night, Clemson seems likely to stay put right behind Alabama. No. 3 Oklahoma was upset by 15th-ranked Houston earlier in the day. The close score does make it a question mark, though.
Watson: “We knew they were going to be good. We knew we weren’t going to come in here and blow these guys out.”
Auburn: hosts Arkansas State, where Malzahn was head coach in 2012, on Saturday.
Clemson: like Auburn, hosts a Sun Belt Conference team on Saturday when Troy visits.
Online: AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org