CLEMSON (CBSMiami/AP) — It was tight for a while but eventually the defending champs pulled away.
Travis Etienne always dreamed of helping his team win a title. It didn’t take very long for the freshman to turn that dream into reality at Clemson.
Etienne ran for 97 yards and two touchdowns to lead the fourth-ranked Tigers to a 31-14 victory over Florida State that clinched the team’s third straight ACC Atlantic Division title and a trip to the league championship game.
“We get a chance to go to Charlotte and play for the ACC championship,” Etienne said. “To win a ring, when the stakes are the highest, is great.”
Clemson might have missed out on that opportunity without Etienne, a gangly looking, 5-foot-10 back who picked the school late in last winter’s recruiting cycle when most figured the Louisiana native was headed for LSU.
He has nine touchdowns this season, second behind quarterback Kelly Bryant’s 10. Against the Seminoles’ staunch defense, Etienne made his biggest runs following Van Smith’s key fourth -quarter interception.
Etienne had a 25-yard run to the FSU 5. Two plays later, he burst through for a 1-yard score that made it 24-14 with 3:05 left.
“Look, my guy is smiling,” Bryant shouted across the room as Etienne took questions.
There could be a lot more smiling ahead as the Tigers (9-1, 7-1, No. 4 CFP) try for a third straight berth in the College Football Playoff. Their opponent in the ACC final will be No. 7 Miami, which wrapped up the Coastal Division with Virginia’s 38-21 loss to Louisville.
Clemson appeared to be in control against Florida State with a 17-0 lead late in the third quarter. But the Seminoles rallied on Jacques Patrick’s 3-yard TD run and a double-pitch back, flea-flicker pass from James Blackman that went for a 60-yard score to Ryan Izzo.
Florida State was in position to spoil the celebration at chilly Death Valley when it recovered Bryant’s fumble on the Clemson 40 with less than seven minutes left. But Blackman’s pass over the middle was intercepted by Smith on the next play, setting up the Tigers’ clinching drive.
“The story of the night was definitely the defense and the turnovers,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Especially that one by Van Smith. And we finally got that drive that we needed” in Etienne’s second TD.
Cornerback Trayvon Mullen knocked away Blackman’s fourth-down pass with 2:13 left to end the Seminoles’ comeback hopes.
It’s the fifth time in Swinney’s nine full seasons that he has taken the Tigers to the conference title game.
For Florida State (3-6, 3-5), it marked its first losing ACC record since 2006. And the Seminoles’ landmark streak of 35 straight bowl games is in jeopardy, too — they have three games left against Delaware State, rival Florida and Louisiana-Monroe.
Bryant finished with 151 yards passing. He also rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown. Adam Choice had a 10-yard TD run with 35 seconds left for Clemson’s final score.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said his team will regroup and prepare to build on its second half.
“We usually find a way to win games like these,” he said. “We’ve got to find that again.”
Florida State: The Seminoles defense can play with anyone and, with just a little offensive help, should be able to keep the team in its remaining games. Florida State rescheduled the game with Louisiana-Monroe, postponed by Hurricane Irma, for Dec. 2 with potential bowl eligibility on the line.
Clemson: The Tigers had another uneven offensive showing with Bryant struggling on longer passes. While Clemson has a defense capable of carrying it to another deep playoff run, it must show more consistency and effectiveness on offense to make it through the more difficult opponents looming in the postseason.
Clemson played without a pair of key defensive starters in tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph. Lawrence, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound sophomore, was out with a foot injury. Joseph, the team’s second-leading tackler, sustained a leg injury last week against North Carolina State. Cornerback Ryan Carter missed much of the final stretch after he was hit hard on a punt return by Florida State linebacker Emmett Rice. Rice was flagged for targeting.
Florida State got its first touchdown in the third quarter this season on Patrick’s run. The Seminoles have scored just 16 third-quarter points in nine games.
Florida State returns home to play Delaware State on Saturday.
Clemson also plays an FCS opponent, taking on Citadel on Saturday.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)