It was third down-and-one for Ohio State with the football resting at the Clemson 24-yard line. Three plays earlier, the Buckeyes intercepted a Deshaun Watson pass and were looking to cash in on the Tigers’ miscue in hopes of setting the stage for how they wanted the 2017 Fiesta Bowl to go.
But what Ohio State did not know is Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell had other things on his mind. Ferrell was thinking back to four years earlier to something his mother said following a recruiting trip to Michigan.
When the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end came back from visiting both Michigan and Michigan State during his sophomore year of high school, he told his mother he was thinking about going to Michigan. He really liked the school and he thought the football program was a good fit for him.
Ferrell’s mom smiled at him and said, “Boy! You can’t play in the Big Ten.’”
“I was like, ‘Wow!’” Ferrell recalled from the conversation.
So here was Ferrell’s opportunity to prove his mom wrong. It was third-and-one, the ball resting at his team’s 24 and the Tigers’ needing a stop to prevent the Buckeyes from getting early momentum. But, using his mom’s words as motivation, Ferrell easily broke through the front line and tackled quarterback J.T. Barrett for a six-yard loss.
On the next play, Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin missed on a 47-yard field goal attempt and the Buckeyes got nothing from the Watson interception. It was a sign of things to come.
Ferrell was a thorn in the Buckeyes’ side all night, as he recorded six tackles, including three tackles for loss and one sack in Clemson’s 31-0 victory. Ferrell admitted he played with an extra motor the entire night because he wanted to show his mom he could play in the Big Ten.
“I always like, ‘Mom, I told you so,” Ferrell said with a grin. “It was crazy. She literally said, ‘Son…’ She was like mad at me for saying I wanted to go to Michigan. She said, ‘Son, you can’t play with those boys.’
“I was just like … It really hurt me. You know what I mean? I dusted it off because my mom does not really care about football. She just sees big guys on TV. I was like 220 pounds. I was a sophomore in high school. She was like, ‘You will never be that big.’ It was fine. Now, when I look back at it, we just kind laugh about it. She said, ‘You proved me wrong.’ It is all fun and games with it now.”
Ferrell’s motivation allowed him to take home Defensive Most Valuable Player honors, and he is still giving J.T. Barrett nightmares.
“I won’t say that I had that ‘I can do it now moment,’” he said. “I was already past that. I was just really focused on moving on to the next play to be honest with you. I was just focused on the game.”
Ferrell’s performance helped a Clemson defense hold the Buckeyes to a season-low 215 yards, including a season low 88 rushing yards. Ohio State had just nine first downs and was shut out for the first time since 1993.
“To comeback last year and have one of our best games against a Big Ten team in Ohio State, it was just like ‘Wow!’” Ferrell said. “That was great to see how far I have come over these last couple of years. I tried not, because you can really get lost when you realize how far you have come, but it’s crazy. It really is.”