Perfect way to go out

Perfect way to go out

CLEMSON – By the end, the only drama left surrounded Daniel Rodriguez and that elusive touchdown.

Clemson had tried. Lord knows, they'd tried to get Rodriguez – the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient – in the end zone late in blowouts, with jet sweeps, pop passes and slants.

Nothing quite worked, so as the third quarter of Clemson's rout of The Citadel wore to a close, Job One was getting Rodriguez, the sophomore wide receiver, his first career touchdown.

Finally on fourth and goal from The Citadel 2, there it was – a jet sweep right, into the end zone for paydirt and a jubilant, high-flying celebration with teammates that was a long time coming.

It was the perfect cap for Clemson's 2013 home season, and a day where pretty much everything went right.

No. 7 Clemson 52, The Citadel 6 felt like a graduation ceremony. An announced crowd of 80,000 said goodbye to a small-but-decorated senior class led by all-everything quarterback Tajh Boyd – and likely star junior receiver Sammy Watkins – with a focused, dominating performance that improved the Tigers to 10-1 entering next week's rivalry showdown at South Carolina.

The only thing missing was Boyd signing everyone's yearbook at the midfield paw afterward.

"8th Period Math Class Was Awesome! Best, TB." After the Tigers' first drive stalled thanks to a Martavis Bryant drop, there was never any doubt Clemson would cruise home.

Two drives. Two minutes, 57 seconds. Two touchdowns.

And a week after containing Georgia Tech's flexbone option, there was no doubt the Tigers' defense would thrive against the Bulldogs' less-powerful FCS version.

Clemson's offense scored at will, with Boyd tossing touchdown passes to five different receivers – Sammy Watkins, Bryant, Mike Williams, Rod McDowell and Stanton Seckinger.

McDowell picked up a beat-up run game by carrying 21 times for 108 yards, lessening the need to rely on Zac Brooks – who fumbled on his only carry and re-injured his shoulder, potentially ending his season – and D.J. Howard.

Big H-back Jay Jay McCullough looked like the day's second-best back, rumbling through The Citadel defense at garbage time.

With Clemson holding a 42-0 lead at halftime, the press box chatter turned to Boyd, and how he'd exit the stadium floor he'd largely dominated on over the last four years.

With every injury – major or not – sustained by safety Travis Blanks (torn ACL), Brooks and fellow senior linebacker Quandon Christian – you wondered: why was Dabo Swinney leaving Boyd in the game?

Sure, he was chasing the Clemson single-game touchdown record – he'd tied the record of five six times, and needed one more – but hits like the one he absorbed following an six-yard third-down scramble were cringe-worthy.

This was the same guy with knee and ankle and collarbone injuries, and here he is, taking big shots up 40 on an FCS team.

Save a little for South Carolina, you know?

"I didn't appreciate that," Swinney said. "I told him it was going to be his last drive. I told him, ‘Nobody hits you, don't run the ball.' What does he do? Not only does he run it, he runs over about three of those guys. That's Tajh Boyd. That's his mentality. I really wish he hadn't done that."

It all ended fine.

Late in the third quarter, Boyd trotted out for one final curtain call. Swinney called a timeout, and Boyd walked to the sideline to a standing ovation from those who remained, getting hugs and hand-slaps from coaches and teammates.

Then, he trotted back out towards the paw at midfield, giving a final salute and bow to Memorial Stadium. It was a perfect finish for a player who owns more than 50 Clemson and ACC records and will go down as one of the best players in Clemson history and one of the best quarterbacks in ACC history.

His final line: 21 of 28 completions, 288 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions.

"I don't think there's any better way to end your senior season at home than five touchdowns," Boyd said. "Enjoying that moment with the guys out on the field. The linemen. The defense. Talking to Sammy. That's what makes it that much more sweet. That's what you remember from that."

Moments later, Rodriguez finally found paydirt.

"It felt good, to be honest," he said. "Coach Swinney's always like, ‘Act like you've been there before.' It's one of those feelings like, I never expected to be there, I never thought I'd get there. I had excitement going through me. It was just awesome, on Military Appreciation Day, to be out there and hear those fans roar. It was incredible, a great feeling."

It was a perfect, focused home finale, with Clemson exerting maximum effort and blowing out an overmatched FCS foe.

A reminder, it's not always that easy: shortly after Swinney wrapped up his postgame press conference, Georgia Southern, which, just like The Citadel, finished the Southern Conference slate 4-4, stunned Florida in Gainesville 26-20. Saturday, Clemson got all the pomp, all the circumstance and a chance to immediately turn its attention towards South Carolina.

For all the success 2013 has brought – a third consecutive 10-win season, a shot at back-to-back 11-win seasons – it'll feel empty with a fifth consecutive loss to the Gamecocks.

"We've got to do a great job, a better job than what we've done in the past," Swinney said. "We've got to play better. Nobody wants it more than me, I promise you."

Thanks to a dominant performance, that's what the upcoming week will be all about.

As it should be.

Clemson's seniors might have graduated Saturday, but their most important tests lie straight ahead.

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