As the final seconds ticked away in No. 12 Clemson’s 40-35 Orange Bowl win over No. 7 Ohio State Friday night, Dabo Swinney ran amok on the floor of Sun Life Stadium, looking for people to hug.
Clemson’s excitable head coach was especially animated on this night, and with good reason: His team had secured a victory that exorcised demons that had haunted his program on a number of levels.
The Tigers’ first-ever Bowl Championship Series win served as a huge boost into the offseason. It clinched back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in program history. And it means that maybe, just maybe, people will stop talking about the 2012 Orange Bowl.
A 70-33 whipping at West Virginia’s hands (the Mountaineers piled up the most points in college bowl history) turned Clemson into a national punchline, one that was revisited repeatedly over the last month, to the Tigers’ chagrin.
No more. The shame of losing to the Mountaineers (who are 11-14 since that fateful night) was replaced with a program-enhancing win over Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes, who entered 24-1 over the last two seasons.
“Two years ago, we got our butts whipped all over this field,” Swinney told ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor afterward. “We’re 22-4 since that night. I can’t tell you how proud I am of our team and our staff. We found a way to win tonight.”
Dabo to ESPN: 2 years ago, we got our butts whipped all over this field. We're 22-4 since then."— Greg Wallace (@gc_wallace) January 4, 2014
They overcame a pair of Tajh Boyd interceptions. Fifteen penalties for 144 yards, including multiple infractions that extended Ohio State drives. It was the kind of night where a missed point-after try by super-reliable senior kicker Chandler Catanzaro fit right in.
“We tried to find some ways to lose this,” Swinney said. “But we’ve got a lot of heart on this team.”
Clemson likely secured a top-10 finish when the final polls come out Tuesday morning, which will serve as a special achievement given 2013’s roller-coaster nature. The Tigers rose as high as No. 3 before absorbing a 51-14 home whipping at the hands of BCS national title game participant Florida State, and climbed back into the top 10 before ending the season with a 31-17 loss at South Carolina, their fifth consecutive loss to their archrivals.
When the Orange Bowl matchup with Ohio State was announced, ESPN’s Rece Davis called the Tigers’ 10-win season “hollow.”
A win over the Buckeyes, who were ticketed for a matchup with FSU before losing the Big Ten title game to Michigan State, was crucial in changing that perception.
It is Clemson’s third top-10 win in its last 14 games, joining the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU and the season-opening win over then-No. 5 Georgia.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt when Swinney gets to take an extra swipe in his ongoing war of words with South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
“We just became the first team in the state of South Carolina to win a BCS bowl game,” Swinney said on the Orange Bowl trophy podium, an obvious callback to Spurrier’s comments about “winning the state championship” following the Gamecocks’ Capital One Bowl win over Wisconsin.
All night long, Clemson showed heart and resilience. The Tigers grabbed an early 20-9 lead, but despite dominating the first half, they trailed 22-20 at halftime. Ohio State built that lead to 29-20 midway through the third quarter, and the Tigers looked to be in trouble as they punted the ball away.
But OSU senior wideout Philly Brown muffed the punt at his own 33, with linebacker Spencer Shuey recovering.
Three plays later, star junior wideout Sammy Watkins high-pointed a 30-yard touchdown catch that cut the lead to 29-27.
On the ensuing drive, freshman safety Jayron Kearse picked off OSU junior quarterback Braxton Miller at the Buckeyes’ 38. Clemson responded with the go-ahead touchdown, with Boyd finishing the drive with a three-yard touchdown to junior Martavis Bryant, who made a juggling grab that gave the Tigers a 34-29 lead.
Ohio State responded with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by Miller’s fade pass to senior tailback Carlos Hyde, but they had nothing for Boyd and the Tigers’ offense.
Clemson put together a 75-yard drive of its own that covered every inch of offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ playbook, including a 3rd-and-goal throwback to tight end Stanton Seckinger for the eventual winning touchdown.
Boyd threw a silly interception to Ohio State’s C.J. Barnett with 1:17 to play, but it was sandwiched around a pair of turnovers that Clemson forced from Miller’s hands.
Clemson forced four Ohio State turnovers on the night, which made up for the two interceptions that Boyd threw in his final collegiate game.
Boyd was electric, completing 30 of 39 passes for 370 yards with five touchdowns. He added 127 rushing yards, including a 48-yard touchdown run.
Watkins, who is a likely top-10 pick in April’s NFL draft, put on a virtuoso effort in what was likely his final collegiate game; he will announce a decision Tuesday. He caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, setting an Orange Bowl record for receiving yardage and winning game MVP honors.
“We persevered through a lot of situations,” Boyd told ESPN as Watkins sat beside him. “This is his last game in a Tiger uniform as well.”
Watkins’ decision to forgo his final college season wouldn’t be surprising: Swinney said multiple times this season that he believes the star receiver is a top-10 draft pick.
Other decisions will be more intriguing. Junior defensive end Vic Beasley was among the top 10 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss and has received a second-round NFL draft evaluation. He said in December that he was “leaning towards” leaving if he received a first-round grade.
Vic Beasley AND Martavis Bryant told me on the field they will announce NFL plans in a couple days. Both said no decision yet, so they said.— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) January 4, 2014
Bryant, who had two athletic touchdown grabs Friday, is also considering leaving. He told the Charleston Post and Courier that he’d announce his decision Saturday.
If Watkins and Bryant leave, the Tigers would lose their top two receivers from 2013, leaving rising senior Adam Humphries, junior Charone Peake (recovering from a torn ACL) and rising sophomores Germone Hopper, Mike Williams and T.J. Green on the roster, as well as a trio of highly regarded freshmen in Demarre Kitt, Artavis Scott and Kyrin Priester.
And who will throw to them? Boyd leaves huge shoes for his successor to fill: Fifty-eight Clemson and ACC single-game, single-season and career passing records, including the ACC’s all-time passing yardage mark.
Highly touted freshman DeShaun Watson will enroll later this month and compete with steadily rising senior Cole Stoudt and rising sophomore Chad Kelly for the job in spring practice, but it will be difficult for the eventual victor, whoever he is, to match Boyd’s presence, poise and resilience in the pocket.
And with the coaching carousel revving back to life as Texas and Penn State fill their openings, offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ name is certain to be bandied about as a top candidate. He makes $1.3 million annually as the nation’s highest-paid assistant and has said repeatedly that he’s willing to wait for the right situation, but that just might come his way in the next month.
An offseason of change and uncertainty lies ahead for Swinney and Clemson.
And while Friday night was another step toward solidifying the Tigers’ status as one of the nation’s elite teams, keeping that status and improving it will be even tougher.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace