The calendar read 2013, but Jadeveon Clowney made it look a whole lot like 2012.
The star defensive end added a fitting coda to his splendid 2012 season, coming up big in the Outback Bowl and spearheading a thrilling, come-from-behind victory for the Gamecocks.
Going against projected first-round offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, Clowney's stats weren't quite as striking as they were all season. They certainly looked nothing like his last performance, a 4.5 sack outburst against the Clemson Tigers. But when his team needed him, Clowney came up big. Like, really big.
With the game at a crossroads in the fourth quarter, the refs botched a first down call that worked in Michigan's favor. We're talking much Seahawks vs. Packers-level incompetence. The Wolverines faked a punt on fourth down and were stopped (seemingly) behind the first-down marker. The chains were brought out and (again, seemingly) confirmed that Michigan was short. But the refs inexplicably awarded them a first down.
The Gamecocks were indignant, nonplussed and defeated. And rightfully so. How could the refs come in and intervene after such a hard-earned turnover on downs? They needed something, anything to get the momentum back on their side. But it seemed unlikely.
Then, Clowney did this:
The near-decapitation sent a jolt through the stadium, and shock waves through the twittersphere. Nobody could believe what they saw. Clowney went through a projected top-15 pick as if he wasn't there, and took the ball back. It looked like he was playing against children.
Clowney racked up 13 sacks this year, winning the Ted Hendricks award for the nation's top defensive end. He also finished sixth in Heisman voting, and has already marked the trophy as one of his goals for 2013 (per USA Today):
I believe a defensive player can win the Heisman next year ... That's my next thing, New York ... Next season, I am going to come out and try to work harder than I did this season and try to get there.
Even in the wake of Manti Te'o's second-place finish, the odds are stacked against him. No exclusive defensive player has ever been awarded the trophy.
Only current Green Bay Packer Charles Woodson—a defensive back who also returned kicks and played wide receiver—has ever done so from the non-dominant side of the ball. And that was from a skill position, a spot on the field that's highly visible and marketable. Clowney plays in the trenches, in the midst of the behemoths.
But after what we witnessed on New Years Day, I'm not betting against Clowney taking home anything he sets his sights on.