Tigers likely do not win national title if freshman doesn’t complete pass to Higgins against Syracuse
There is no doubt Trevor Lawrence’s performance in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game will go down as one of the greatest in Clemson history.
The true freshman was unflappable in the Tigers’ 44-16 victory over previously undefeated Alabama. Lawrence completed 20-of-32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns in leading Clemson to its second national title in three years and its third overall.
However, as good as Lawrence has been all year, his performance in the national championship game likely does not happen if it was not for the gutty performance of Chase Brice back on Sept. 29.
The redshirt freshman began that week as the Tigers’ third string quarterback, but by the end of the week he was called on to help lead his team to its only come-from-behind win all season.
“That is just a testament to the coaching staff trusting me, even though I am really a first-year player after getting redshirted,” Brice said just moments after Clemson won the national championship on Monday night. “My preparation came at the right time.”
On Sept. 24, head coach Dabo Swinney announced Lawrence was going to be the starter for the Tigers’ Week 5 game against Syracuse and senior Kelly Bryant, who was 18-2 as a starter in his two-plus seasons at quarterback, would still play but would come in as the second-team guy. That did not sit too well with Bryant, who left the program, so he could transfer and play one more season somewhere else.
All of sudden Brice went from the third string guy to the second-team guy. The coaches frantically tried to get the Grayson, Ga., native ready in case he was called upon.
The Clemson coaches were hopeful they would not have to use Brice, but as it turned out, they did. Midway through the second quarter, with Clemson trailing the Orange, 13-7, Lawrence rolled to his left to avoid pressure. When he saw no one was open downfield, he turned down the sideline and tried to dive for the first down.
While diving, Lawrence was struck in the head and left the game due to the concussion protocol. It was later discovered he had a neck strain and he did not return.
So, the game and Clemson’s chances at making the College Football Playoff were turned over to Brice, who had very little playing experience up to that point. Through the first four games, Brice completed just 5-of-8 passes for 37 yards and one interception in mop-up duty.
Brice led the Tigers on a field goal drive midway through the third quarter, which cut the Oranges’ lead to 16-10. An A.J. Terrell interception allowed the Tigers to cut into the lead even more as Greg Huegel made a 37-yard field goal, pushing the score to 16-13 with 2:13 to play in the third quarter.
However, a muffed punt by Amari Rodgers at the end of the quarter set up an easy Syracuse touchdown early in the fourth quarter as Eric Dungey gave the Orange a 23-13 lead with 12:58 to play with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Brice engineered a 6-play, 75-yard scoring drive on Clemson’s next possession, capped by a 26-yard Travis Etienne touchdown with 11:08 to go that made the score 23-20.
The two teams then exchanged punts and then the Tigers stopped the Orange again to take over at their own six-yard line with 6:06 to play.
Behind the running of Etienne, Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster, Clemson moved the ball to its own 48-yard line before the drive started to bog down. That’s when Brice became a folk hero at Clemson.
No play the entire season was bigger than the one he made with under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on Clemson’s eventual game-winning touchdown drive.
Brice stepped up when his team needed him most — on fourth-and-6 from Clemson’s 48-yard line, he dropped back to pass and tossed a beautiful throw to sophomore wide receiver Tee Higgins between two defenders on the near sideline for a 20-yard completion that kept the Tigers’ drive and hopes of winning alive.
“Tee showed up. He ran a great route and I just had to put it right there for him and then the rest is history,” Brice said.
After moving the chains with the clutch completion, Brice scampered 17 yards for another first down on the next play, keeping the ball himself on what was a designed run call to Etienne. Four plays later, Etienne gave Clemson the lead for good with his third rushing touchdown of the game, a 2-yard burst that put Clemson up 27-23 with 41 seconds left.
No one came close to beating Clemson the rest of the season as the Tigers beat their next 10 opponents by an average of 36.1 points per game, winning by at least 20 points in every outing on their way to being the first 15-0 team in the modern era of major college football.
“It is unbelievable. We had it marked on our calendar all year. Our slogan was ‘Be About It’ earlier in the winter and it came full circle,” Brice said. “We were ‘About It Tonight’ and it is just awesome. It is an awesome feeling.
“I know some people don’t want to say it, but we could be the best (team) ever.”
But without Brice’s heroic effort in the win over Syracuse, no one would be able to say it.