Clemson running back Roderick McDowell (25) reacts after scoring a touchdown against Auburn in the second quarter of a NCAA college football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012. At left is Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (6). (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
ATLANTA (AP) — Sammy who? Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins made sure Clemson didn't miss its star receiver.
With Sammy Watkins back home serving a two-game suspension for a drug arrest, the No. 14 Tigers still showed plenty of offense in their opener Saturday night. Ellington rushed for 231 yards, while Hopkins set a school record with 13 receptions, including the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter for a 26-19 victory over Auburn.
The fast-break offense of coordinator Chad Morris carried on just fine without Watkins, piling up 320 yards rushing and 528 yards overall.
"We had to fill that void collectively as a group, and we did that," coach Dabo Swinney said. "Guys stepped up, and filled the void for Sammy. When he's on the field, obviously he can impact the game. But we're proud of how the team picked up the slack."
Playing before a 50-50 crowd at the Georgia Dome — basically halfway between the two campuses — Clemson shook off any hangover from last season's embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, though it wasn't easy.
The second half was a battle of field goals before Tajh Boyd lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins, who made a brilliant, twisting catch in the corner of the end zone with 9:17 to go. The junior finished with 119 yards receiving.
"I was in a great zone, like I always am," said Hopkins, who broke the record of 12 receptions set by Airese Currie against Middle Tennessee State in 2003. "Coach Morris had a great game plan to get playmakers the ball and spread it around, and that's what he did."
"No one is celebrating more than Sammy Watkins back in Clemson," Swinney added.
Ellington broke off a couple of long runs to set up a chip-shot field goal with just over a minute remaining for the final margin. Auburn got the ball back one more time, but with only one timeout. The Southeastern Conference team didn't even get it across midfield, the game ending on a desperate heave by new quarterback Kiehl Frazier.
The 5-foot-10 Ellington scooted around and through the Auburn defense on 26 carries, the longest of them a 68-yarder that set up Clemson's first touchdown.
"I certainly didn't get it all on my own," Ellington said. "I'm just thankful to have a great line in front of me."
Boyd did his part, too, completing 24 of 34 for 208 yards and carrying the ball 19 times for 58 yards. Clemson made life miserable for new Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who returned to the stadium where he spent the past four seasons with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"Our credit goes to the guys up front," Swinney said. "When you rush for 320 yards and win the turnover margin, you're going to win a bunch of ballgames."
Frazier had a 54-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake, hitting the receiver in stride to put Auburn ahead 7-3 late in the first quarter. The sophomore, who beat out last year's starter, Clint Mosey, for the job in fall camp, showed plenty of potential but is still a work in progress. Frazier passed for 194 yards despite completing just 11 of 27.
"I did all right," Frazier said, "but I made a lot of mistakes and left some plays out there on the field."
Tre Mason led Auburn in rushing with 106 yards.
Both teams kicked four field goals. Cody Parkey connected from 37, 46, 27 and 36 yards for Auburn, the last of them putting his team ahead with 12:50 remaining. Chandler Catanzaro was just as accurate for Clemson, booting it through from 24, 40, 37 and 18 yards.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Boyd threw behind tight end Sam Cooper, the ball bouncing off his hands and right to Auburn linebacker Daren Bates for an interception. He returned it to the Clemson 35.
Mason ran it three times, taking the ball inside the Clemson 10, but a crucial holding penalty on Greg Robinson, a redshirt freshman making his first college appearance at left tackle, cost the Tigers a chance for the second TD. They wound up settling for yet another field goal by Parkey.
That wasn't enough to hold off Clemson.
"Turnovers and not taking advantage of red-zone opportunity was the main difference," Mason said.
Boyd broke off a 27-yard run after faking a handoff out of the shotgun and scrambled for another first down on third-and-5, keeping the drive going with a 10-yard gain. Ellington slid around right end for 8 yards, then took off up the middle for a 9-yard run. Finally, on first-and-goal at the Auburn 4, Clemson stuck it in the end zone.
Credit Hopkins for that. Boyd took one step back and floated a pass toward the corner. Even though cornerback Chris Davis grabbed at the junior receiver, drawing a flag, Hopkins went up and got it. He corkscrewed his body around to snag the ball, managing to get a foot down before he tumbled out of bounds.
Frazier had a second-quarter interception that was essentially a punt, lofting a desperation pass down the field on third-and-15 that was picked off by Rashard Hall way down at the Clemson 15.
Turns out, that just gave Ellington more room to run. He burst down the field on his 68-yarder, and the officials tacked on a few more yards when Jonathan Mincy was flagged for a personal foul at the end of the play. On the very next snap, Roderick McDowell scored on a 7-yard run to put Clemson ahead 13-7.
Clemson gave the maligned Atlantic Coast Conference a much-needed win over an SEC opponent on the second of back-to-back openers at the Georgia Dome between the two leagues. Tennessee romped past North Carolina State 35-21 the previous night, a game marred by the death of a 20-year-old fan who fell out of the upper deck.
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