Now you see him, now you don’t.
Ohio State consistently recruits the best athletes in the country, but that collection of five-star talent could not keep pace with the blast of lightning that is Clemson’s Travis Etienne, one of the best running backs in the country who has not received the national attention he deserves.
Etienne scored three touchdowns in Clemson’s College Football Playoff semifinal win over the Buckeyes. Each of them displayed the array of skills Etienne can pull from his back pocket at any given moment.
His first score, which cut Ohio State’s lead to 16-7 late in the first half, showed Etienne’s power, change of direction and burst all in one. It was a third-and-2 play from the OSU 8-yard line and Etienne received a pitch four yards behind the line of scrimmage. He was seemingly bottled up by the Buckeyes for a loss, but somehow managed to fend off all-Big Ten safety Jordan Fuller with the swipe of his left hand.
Etienne then planted his right foot in the ground and accelerated into the teeth of the defense to pick up a first down. But he wasn’t finished there. Etienne’s burst propelled him past a swarm of five OSU defenders and into the end zone for a Clemson touchdown.
How many running backs could be closed in by four defenders near the sideline, two yards behind the line of scrimmage and still somehow get through to the endzone?— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) January 2, 2020
Well, we know one: Travis Etienne.
(Bonus points for high-fiving the safety ✋)#ALLIN pic.twitter.com/zs19hGkQv1
During a segment on SEC Network on Saturday, Clemson right tackle Tremayne Anchrum said that touchdown epitomizes what Etienne is all about.
“That first touchdown kind of gave us a spark,” Anchrum said. “This man was dead to rights running to the sideline trapped. He had seven defenders, including the sideline, and he made them miss. That speaks to the kind of special player he is.”
Etienne’s second touchdown was all about vision and straight-line speed. This time, the Tigers were trailing 16-14 and approaching midfield about halfway through the third quarter when a screen pass for Etienne was set up brilliantly. Clemson used the aggressiveness of the Ohio State defensive line to its advantage and slipped Etienne out behind a crashing Chase Young.
Once the ball was in his hands, Etienne evaded all-Big Ten linebacker Malik Harrison in the backfield, accelerated past Baron Browning and was off to the races for a 53-yard catch-and-run.
Etienne’s third score proved to be the game-winner for the Tigers and showcased just how quickly he can get to top speed. Lawrence faked a designed quarterback run and found Etienne over the top on a pop pass, but the pass did not hit Etienne in stride. The running back turned to make the catch, reset his feet and jetted into the secondary.
Etienne was met by two OSU defenders inside the 5, but he showed off his powerful leg drive and dragged them into the end zone to give his team the lead with 1:49 to play.
Etienne has made plays like this on a weekly basis since he stepped onto Clemson’s campus as an unheralded three-star recruit out of Jennings, Louisiana, in 2017. The numbers are ridiculous: 3,960 yards and 55 touchdowns on 503 carries over three seasons. He scored three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving, in last year’s national title game. And this year, he became a true threat in the passing game, hauling in 32 passes for 396 yards and four more scores.
“That man is great. He’s a different kind of runner,” Anchrum said. “This guy’s legs never stop churning. He doesn’t run from contact, he runs to it. He always makes the first person miss. This guy’s hard to get down.”
Etienne needs just seven yards to break Clemson’s all-time rushing record — Raymond Priester accumulated 3,966 yards on 805 carries, 302 more than Etienne — and holds the all-time ACC record in rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and points by a non-kicker. On top of that, he is third in FBS history in rushing yards per attempt. He’s averaged 7.9 yards a carry for his career and has averaged 8 yards a carry in each of the last two seasons.
“He's been amazing for our program,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He's got about every record in the book, and those who follow Clemson know he's done it on very limited touches. I mean, there's been lots of games where he's had eight, nine, 10 touches because of the nature of the game and yet he's got 100-something yards.
“He's just a special young person and just a blue collar hard worker, humble superstar, and doesn't even know it. He just goes about his business. He loves to play. He loves to practice. He doesn't have smidge of prima donna in him. He's a grinder and he sets a great example and sets the tone for everybody else, because he doesn't carry himself as a superstar type guy. He just goes about his business and he's a great teammate, excellent student, and he's just been a joy to watch transform over the last three seasons.”
Despite all of that, Etienne has somehow flown under the radar throughout his Clemson career. He finished fourth among running backs in Heisman voting this season and hasn’t won a single national award during his time with the Tigers.
What gives? ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy believes the star power of Lawrence — the former No. 1 recruit who led his team to a national title as a true freshman — overshadows just how good Etienne is.
“I think he’s an elite, top-tier back,” McElroy told Yahoo Sports. “Are there areas where he should improve? Yeah. I think his pass protection is subpar for a back of his caliber. But for the most part I think he’s extremely good in open space, has great body control, does a great job of avoiding the first initial contact. He probably flies under the radar because Trevor Lawrence is going to receive so much credit and attention.”
Etienne now has the opportunity to finally get his due, and he will get to do so in a national championship game (likely his final game at the collegiate level) played in his home state against LSU. How Etienne escaped LSU’s grasp to land at Clemson is a sore subject for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron.
“Every time I heard about Clemson playing or every time I've seen him having success, I'm sick to my stomach,” Orgeron said.
Orgeron was LSU’s defensive line coach during most of Etienne’s recruitment, but got promoted to interim head coach in September 2016 after Les Miles was fired. Etienne finally got his coveted offer from LSU in December of that year and Orgeron made a strong push for Etienne’s signature late in the recruiting process. But Orgeron said it was “too little, too late.”
“Travis kept on coming up. But for one reason or another, we never offered him a scholarship. After I became interim coach, we had a couple of players that we had been recruiting for a while. We thought we were going to get them, and we thought that if we offered someone else we may lose them. Then we got shut out,” Orgeron explained during a CFP teleconference.
“I offered Travis really late as interim. I had a home visit with him. I told him how much we wanted him, but it was too little, too late. He had made up his mind already. It’s something that I think we should have done a better job of. We should have recruited him at an earlier age, like we do all our great Louisiana backs, and keep them in state. He's the one that got away.”
Swinney noted Saturday that Etienne was the first player he ever signed out of the state of Louisiana. Three years later, “the one that got away” for Orgeron could prove to be the x-factor in LSU’s first national title game appearance since 2011.
“When you see Clemson and the way they made big plays against an outstanding Ohio State football team with some great players on that team, and to see Etienne running away from them and making big plays, you can tell your team all you want,” Orgeron said. “This is a very, very talented football team.”
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