Clemson’s New Year’s Eve party in Miami got started well before midnight Thursday.
The Tigers ran away from Oklahoma in the second half of the Orange Bowl and defeated the Sooners 37-17 to move one win away from a second national title.
Clemson trailed 17-16 at the half before outscoring Oklahoma 21-0 over the final two quarters in front of 67,615 fans, mostly dressed in orange, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
A celebration on the field ensued as Clemson moved within one victory of becoming the first team to finish a season 15-0 since Penn in 1897.
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“It’s a special time right now. It’s been 34 years since Clemson had a chance to win a national championship,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “We ain’t worried about next week. We’ll worry about Monday when it gets here. We’re worried about enjoying the moment, ringing in the new year and celebrating this win.”
Clemson rushed for more than 300 yards, with Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson accounting for 295 of them.
Sooners running back Samaje Perine gave Oklahoma a quick 7-0 lead, scoring on a 1-yard run to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive on Oklahoma’s opening possession.
Clemson trailed 7-3 in the second quarter and was set to punt the ball back to the Sooners when Swinney called a fake punt and punter Andy Teasdall hooked up with defensive tackle Christian Wilkins for a 31-yard gain. Clemson scored two plays later to take the lead.
Trailing 16-10, Oklahoma drove 76 yards in four plays just before halftime to go on top 17-16, but after Watson threw an interception in the end zone with only seconds remaining in the first half, it was all Clemson the final two quarters.
Watson finished 16-for-31 passing for 187 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and rushed for 145 yards and a score. He was named the game’s Offensive MVP. Gallman had 26 carries for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
Kicker Greg Huegel connected on first-half field goals of 26, 36 and 43 yards for the Tigers.
Defensively, Ben Boulware made eight tackles with a sack and had one of Clemson’s two interceptions on his way to Defensive MVP honors. Tigers star defensive end Shaq Lawson was injured in the first quarter and didn’t return, but Clemson had five sacks, nine tackles for loss and held Oklahoma to 67 rushing yards despite the All-American’s injury.
The Tigers will face Alabama, which defeated Michigan State on Thursday, in the National Championship Game on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
Clemson’s opening drive of the second half set the tone for the remainder of the game.
The Tigers played smash-mouth football, putting together a 12-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by Gallman’s 1-yard run. Clemson ran the ball seven times for 44 yards on the possession.
“Really, it started when Wayne had a 12-yard run to open it up. We could tell at that time that they were done, physically, maybe even a little bit mentally,” Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said. “We were just running all over them, and thankfully Wayne and Deshaun I think both were over 100 yards and just really dominated.”
Star of the game: Watson. The game’s Offensive MVP didn’t have his best passing performance, but made big plays when the Tigers needed them. He rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half and went 7-for-8 passing in the third quarter as Clemson took control.
Play of the game: The fake punt. Clemson was playing tight and had gotten only 16 yards in the passing game when, early in the second quarter, punter Andy Teasdall took the snap to punt, dropped back and heaved a long ball down the sideline to 300-pound defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. The Tigers gained confidence and momentum, and scored two plays later.
Stat of the game: 312 rushing yards: Despite whipping Oklahoma 40-6 a year ago, Clemson rushed only 42 times for 68 yards in the game. The Tigers completely dominated the line of scrimmage against the Sooners.
Clemson’s three suspended players weren’t missed: Wide receiver Deon Cain, kicker Ammon Lakip and tight end Jay Jay McCullough missed the Orange Bowl after being sent home for violating team rules earlier in the week, but the Tigers didn’t miss the three against Oklahoma.
Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow stepped up in Cain’s absence, catching four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Senior Charone Peake caught four passes for 54 yards and made several key grabs in the first half.
Kicker Greg Huegel had no problems with extra points, and the Sooners didn’t hurt Clemson in the return game with Huegel handling kickoffs.
Clemson’s secondary missed too many tackles: Oklahoma was able to hang around early on, thanks in large part to poor tackling by the Clemson defense, especially the secondary.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield passed for 311 yards, and several of them came after the catch. The OU receivers provided the biggest test for Clemson all year, and while the Tigers passed, poor tackling will need to get cleaned up before the national championship game.
Deshaun Watson is special: The Heisman Trophy finalist didn’t have his best game, and he made an uncharacteristically bad decision late in the first half that cost Clemson a field goal, but he also made the big play every time Clemson needed it.
Watson stayed calm and collected when the Tigers weren’t clicking early, and helped settle the team down. His confidence oozes and keeps everyone on Clemson’s team believing the Tigers will win.
Who: Clemson vs. Alabama
When: 8:30 p.m., Jan. 11