The national championship game is Jan. 11, which means you have 11 more days to doubt the Clemson Tigers. The nation’s No. 1 team entered the Orange Bowl a 3 1/2-point underdog to Oklahoma, which was also the choice of five of ESPN’s six featured analysts. Not five minutes in, the Tigers trailed 7-0. They won 37-17.
They had the better defense, the better offense, the better coach. They had the second-best player on the field in Wayne Gallman, the irresistible running back from Loganville. They had the best player on this field and — according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — “the best player in the country” in Deshaun Watson, the galvanic sophomore from Gainesville.
Clemson lost its best defensive lineman (Shaq Lawson) to a knee injury in the first quarter and still overpowered an Oklahoma offense that averaged 45.8 points and 542.9 yards. The Lawson-less defense harried Baker Mayfield into two second-half interceptions. Tackle D.J. Reader slammed into Samaje Perine with such oomph that the splendid Sooner folded like a canvas chair in a gale. The raging Oklahoma offense didn’t score after halftime.
Taking the game’s final snap, the pride of Gainesville slung the ball far over the Oklahoma bench in exultation. So many people had wondered, if not about Watson, then surely about Watson’s team. Weren’t the bowl flops of North Carolina and Florida State all the more reason to ask if going unbeaten through the ACC was tantamount to being the best surfer in South Dakota? You’re free to keep wondering, but nothing that happened here lent fuel to that fire. This was a terrific performance by a terrific team.
And not, since you asked, a one-man team — although if you had to build your team around one man, it’d be Watson. Clemson has yet to lose a game he has started and finished. He made a difference here, same as always. He threw for 187 yards and rushed for 145 more. He was so unrelenting that his one wobble — an end-zone interception at the end of the first half that left Oklahoma ahead 17-16 at the break — was rendered a footnote.
Clemson punted after its first possession. It didn’t punt again until it led 30-17. It left points on the field, kicking three field goals and missing a fourth, but it took control. Gallman gained 111 of his 150 yards after halftime. Watson completed one of his first six passes but was 15-of-25 thereafter. The Oklahoma offense was outgained 530 yards to 378. Once Clemson got it going, Oklahoma was gone with the wind.
The moment of ignition was sparked by the head coach often derided as the head cheerleader. The Tigers trailed 7-3 early in the second quarter. Watson’s 46-yard gain from the 4 to midfield was about to amount to nothing. It was fourth-and-4 at the Oklahoma 44. Swinney summoned his punter. Not to punt, though.
Andy Teasdall took the deep snap and looked far downfield. He saw No. 42 in an orange shirt thundering along the left sideline, though No. 42 in orange would have been hard to miss. He’s Christian Wilkins, a 315-pound backup defensive tackle. Teasdall loosed a pass toward Wilkins, and your first thought was, “No way this is complete.” But it was. The massive Wilkins caught the ball over his shoulder, as if he does this sort of thing all the time. The outrageous 31-yard gain led to the Tigers’ first touchdown, and from there the night was theirs.
But think what might have happened had a punter’s pass to a defensive tackle fallen incomplete. The Sooners would have had the ball in prime position to make it 14-3. Swinney called Clemson’s victory over Notre Dame a BYOG game – bring your own guts – and for sure, he brought his to South Florida. And now his team heads to Arizona.
Said Swinney, not endearing himself to grammarians: “I told them, ‘You ain’t favored to win the darn game, but we ain’t no underdog.’ Nobody believes in this team except these guys, and they’ve just got a great heart.”
All doubters have been placed on notice. You have 11 more days to question the caliber of Clemson. Come Jan. 12, doubting might well be impossible.