Offensive guard Eric Mac Lain is the winningest player in Clemson football history, having played in all 46 of the Tigers’ victories over the last four seasons.
You learn a thing or two about body language and spirit winning 46 major college football games. So Mac Lain could identify precisely when Thursday night the Oklahoma Sooners had had enough.
Running back Wayne Gallman had a 12-yard run early in the second half of Clemson’s 37-17 national semifinal victory at the Orange Bowl. Let Mac Lain describe what ensued:
“We could tell they were done physically and maybe even mentally,” Mac Lain said. “We were just running all over them. Wayne and Deshaun (Watson) both had over 100 yards and just really dominated.”
Clemson needed a bit of first-half trickery – a pass out of a fake punt to a defensive tackle – to score its first touchdown. But this complete blowout in the second half was about the remarkable development of Clemson’s offensive and defensive lines over the past six months.
Mac Lain was the only player of great experience on either of those lines. The Tigers lost 10 players to the NFL, including pass rusher Vic Beasley, a top-10 pick to the Atlanta Falcons.
But coach Dabo Swinney was confident the program had recruited well enough that the up-and-comers were ready. He pictured the Tigers as one of perhaps 10 teams with a real chance to get to the Jan. 11 national championship game in Glendale, Ariz.
And now they have. Much of that is about the exceptionally physicality those lines demonstrated against the Sooners.
“I think it’s awesome to be able to replace every single person on the offensive and defensive (lines) and to have zero drop-off, if not be even better,” said Mac Lain, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound guard.
“We really understand that it all starts in the trenches, no matter who we’re playing, no matter where we’re playing. If we can dominate on both sides of the ball up-front, it’s going to be a very easy game for us.”
It certainly was by the start of the fourth quarter. One statistic from this game dazzled: Clemson outgained Oklahoma on the ground 312 yards to 67.
Much of the credit for that has to go to Gallman (156 yards on 26 carries) and Watson (149 yards on 24 carries). They are both elusive, strong runners who find their way to the first down markers.
But if the line isn’t doing its job, they can’t do theirs.
It’s also telling that the Tigers gave up a single sack Thursday against one of the country’s better pass rushes. The line has kept Watson clean most games. That’s partially his mobility, but it’s not exclusively that.
Swinney singled out Mac Lain for praise post-game and not just for what Mac Lain does during games.
“Eric has been an unbelievable leader,” Swinney said. “He took Mitch Hyatt under his wing, a true freshman left tackle.
“It doesn’t matter who we’ve played, they have been incredibly consistent. One sack? I think that’s the first sack we’ve given up in six games.”
The defensive front was similarly dominant despite playing the second half without star end Shaq Lawson. He suffered a leg injury early in the game and couldn’t push off the ground enough to be effective. He hopes to be ready to play in the national championship game.
What those lines have done is a surprise to everyone. Well, nearly everyone.
“We recruited well and we saw them in the spring,” Swinney said. “Everybody wants to talk about who left and what you don’t have…
“Vic Beasley is the eighth pick in the draft and – oh my God – what are we going to do? And I’m like, ‘We’ve got a guy named Shaq Lawson. He’s pretty good. We’re going to be OK.’ ”
Better than OK. Far better.