One day soon, Dabo Swinney will sign a rich, new contract with Clemson that could keep him around for nearly a decade, and games such as the 40-35 win against seventh-ranked Ohio State in the Orange Bowl and last year’s dramatic victory against LSU in the Chick-fil-A are indicative of a sound investment.
In five full seasons, Swinney has restored the program to a level comparable to what fans grew accustomed to during Danny Ford’s reign, and Friday night 12th-ranked Clemson won a BCS bowl game for the first time. It was a blend of the contemporary and the traditional with sleek, dynamic offense and gritty, bruising defense reminiscent of Ford’s era.
Quarterback Braxton Miller, the most dynamic player for Ohio State, said he was hurt on the fifth play from scrimmage, after Clemson end Vic Beasley darted into the backfield, corralled and wrestled him to the ground. It was the first of five sacks against a team that allowed 17 all season, and Miller said it affected every aspect of his game.
Ohio State finished with 427 yards, more than 100 fewer than its season average and one of its two least productive games in two seasons under coach Urban Meyer. And it resulted in one of the most humbling defeats in Ohio State lore. Coming into the game, Ohio State had a 279-0-1 record in games in which it scored at least 35 points.
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With quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins putting exclamation points on their careers, Clemson was much like the team that has won 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time and likely will finish ranked in the top 10 nationally. Occasionally tripping over itself, Clemson punished Ohio State with 576 yards but allowed the Buckeyes hope with a safety in the first half, an interception on the doorstep of the end zone and another in the game’s final two minutes.
Defense pulled Clemson from the fire, forcing turnovers on four of Ohio State’s final five possessions, including an interception by linebacker Stephone Anthony with 1:27 to play.
“It was a lot of fun, man, it was a lot of fun,” Swinney said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t luck up and get to BCS games. You earn your way there. And you don’t luck up and win them. You’ve got to win them on the field.”
Beasley schooled the Ohio State tackles, speeding by them for four tackles for loss including a sack that cost the Buckeyes 17 yards.
Linebacker Spencer Shuey had one of the sacks, his first of the season and the second of his career, and recovered a fumble late when every possession became precious.
Anthony also reached Miller, one of his team-high eight tackles, and intercepted the pass that took Ohio State off life support.
“To win it is the ultimate goal,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They didn’t back into it. They earned it.”
Clemson had stopped the Buckeyes on five of their first six possessions and Miller wasn’t finding time, running back Carlos Hyde wasn’t seeing holes. Clemson built an 11-point lead in the first half that might have been larger.
Ohio State scored on three consecutive possessions — 20 points — and led by nine in the third quarter, punching at the Clemson midsection like a fighter trying to soften his opponent.
“We weren’t getting lined up fast enough and they were mushing us and we stopped them a little bit,” Venables said. “We responded and got off the field.”
The Buckeyes would score once more for a one-point lead with more than 11 minutes to play.
“It was about the victory tonight,” Venables said. “It was fun to be part of that.”
Venables had said he was insulted by the suggestion that the game would be reduced to a shootout, but in most respects, the game’s drama was as anticipated — plenty of scoring and big plays with a dash of weirdness. Clemson was penalized 15 times for a season-high 144 yards, and it might have been laughable hadn’t many of them been so critical.
Two years ago, in that fateful game with West Virginia, the team did not respond well to adversity, so it seems logical that the maturity of this team, the experiences they had then and during this season began to assert itself.
“We were young in that game,” said running back Rod McDowell, who capped his career with 69 rushing yards to surpass 1,000 for the season. “We grew up, got hungry and got better.”
Questionable decisions by Boyd cost Clemson a touchdown in the first half, and he made one of those “what was that?” throws late in the game when all he needed was to milk the clock. Once he considered attending Ohio State. His favorite college player was OSU quarterback Troy Smith. It’s hard to imagine where the program would be without him.
Boyd showed all his skills in his final game — the 32nd victory of his Clemson career. His touch on throws in close to Watkins and Martavis Bryant were deft. And he ran as if he was showing Ohio State, “Look what you missed.”
His 378 passing yards on 31 of 40 completions was the second-highest total in an Orange Bowl, ironically second to Geno Smith’s 407 here two years ago against Clemson.
On Tuesday, he will reveal what most think they already know, but in what surely would be his final game, Watkins delivered a farewell exceeding anything imaginable. His 16 receptions for 227 yards broke his school records in both categories. During the course of the game, he surpassed the Clemson single-season and career marks.
A native of Fort Myers playing in front of virtually a hometown crowd, he left nothing on the field and was named the game’s most valuable player.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and that’s what they did for us tonight,” McDowell said. “We came out here to handle business, and we did that tonight.”
Clemson finished with 198 rushing yards, two shy of what’s been the magic number for success. Boyd was the most productive with a game-high 137.
“We felt like we could run the football. We had to do some things to disguise it,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “I felt like we had a quickness advantage after watching them on video.
“We just had to get our guys loose. We knew going in we could have an advantage speed-wise.”
Boyd’s two interceptions marred an otherwise marvelous performance. The second was more stressful, coming when it did with Clemson trying to protect a lead in the final 3:12. Morris had instructed him not to throw, but he’s come to understand it is part of what you get with a extremely confident, selfless player such as Boyd.
It’s why the game was special to them all after the game here two years ago.
“Those that were part of this two years ago, I asked them to raise their hands,” Morris said. “It wasn’t any fun, 10 minutes into the third quarter, it wasn’t no fun. I told them we had a chance to go back and do something about it.
“We got back, and to see what our guys did was great.”
Morris’ impact on Clemson has exceeded expectations, and there’s plenty of conjecture about how Swinney can keep him tethered. It was apparent this game meant the world to him.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Really, when you look back at it and know what we did tonight and how we won it, it’s pretty special.
“I’m not going to lie. I’m going to savor every moment of it.”