By Ed McGranahan
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Skeptics were at every turn on the streets of South Florida this week, so it was difficult to get a fair audience when trying to make a case that Clemson and not Ohio State was the better team in this year’s Discover Orange Bowl.
Never mind that Clemson won the only other game between the schools. That was 35 years ago and the old gray coaching was a little daffy.
This was The Ohio State University, a noble program with more national titles than you can count on one hand, and until they faced the team in the conference championship coached by a former Gamecock, they’d pretty much rolled through the schedule.
Ohio State by two points was the betting line. The over/under was 70. Clemson took them both down, 40-35, on a night when the orange flew, children smiled and grown men with beards and big bellies shed a tear.
Flawed but confident, Ohio State’s reputation was built around two powerful backs and an offensive line that included three all-stars. Quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde had been magnificent, each rushing for more than 1,000 yards, but they needed help and didn’t find much among the scarlet and silver at Sun Life Stadium.
Ohio State had allowed 17 sacks all season. Clemson reached Miller five times. Hit him hard on each occasion. When linebacker Spencer Shuey hit Miller as he unloaded a pass, it left a man-sized divot in the turf. Shuey was penalized for slamming, which he thought was the object of the game.
Shuey had one of the sacks, his first of the season and only the second of his career. He also intercepted a pass for the first time late in the game when every possession became precious.
End Vic Beasley schooled the Ohio State tackles, keeping their heads on speed dial, four tackles for loss including a sack that cost the Buckeyes 17 yards.
And linebacker Stephone Anthony reached Miller, one of his team-high eight tackles, and intercepted the pass with 1:18 to play that took the last bit of wind out of Ohio State’s sails.
“To win it is the ultimate goal,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “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, Hyde wasn’t seeing holes. Clemson built an 11-point lead in the first half that might/should have been larger.
Then Ohio State scored 20 unanswered 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 again, but their last five possessions would include four turnovers.
“It was about the victory tonight,” said Venables. “It was fun to be part of that.”
In many regards the drama was as anticipated, plenty of scoring and big plays with a dash of weirdness. The officiating kept it interesting, but nobody can talk about it.
Clemson was penalized 15 times for 144 yards, and it might have been laughable hadn’t many of them been so critical. The next highest this season was 96 in the Florida State game.
“We’ve got to fix that,” said senior left tackle Brandon Thomas, who won’t be around for the lessons.
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.
Bonehead decisions by quarterback Tajh Boyd cost Clemson a touchdown in the first half that could have been the first nail in the coffin, then made one of those “what was that?” throws late in the game when all he needed was to milk the clock.
Once upon a time 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 Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant were deft. And he ran as if he was showing Ohio State, “Look what you missed.”
In what surely would be his final game, Watkins delivered an opus, a farewell exceeding anything imaginable. His 16 receptions for 227 yards broke his own school records in both categories. He leaves as unquestionably the greatest receiver in school history. Playing in front of virtually a hometown crowd, he left nothing on the field and was named the game’s most valuable player.
On Tuesday he will tell us what we all tend to think we already know.
Yet he, too, was not without error, throwing a lame pass toward Boyd on a two-point conversion attempt, which was more in retrospect for the laughs it created when Coach Dabo Swinney issued an edict against passing by the great receiver.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time games, and that’s what they did for us tonight,” said running back Rod McDowell. “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, but McDowell and C.J. Davidson delivered big runs at critical junctions. McDowell, the Pocket Rocket, finished with 69 yards and eclipsed 1,000 for the season.
“We felt like we could run the football. We had to do some things to disguise it,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “I felt like we had a quickness advantage after watching them.
“We just had to get our guys loose.”
Morris’ impact on Clemson has been beyond all expectations when Swinney plucked him off the Tulsa staff one year out of the high school ranks, and 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 to beat a BCS caliber team in this magnitude and how we won it, it’s pretty special.”