GLENDALE, Ariz. – Redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Simmons remembers when Clemson got behind Alabama by two touchdowns in the first half of the 2016 national championship game, but still came back to win, 35-31.
So, when the Tigers trailed Ohio State 16-0 midway through the second quarter of the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Simmons was not fazed.
“Me personally, I never really got down about it,” Simmons said. “Games like this, you can’t ever expect them to be easy. And just being a part of a team, the national championship team in 2016 — being down 14-0 and making a comeback from that — I believe that just helped me in my spirit and everything to have the right mindset for that particular situation.”
Simmons and the Clemson defense stiffened up after allowing a touchdown and three field goals in the early going against the Buckeyes at State Farm Stadium, while the Tigers’ offense kicked into gear late in the second quarter to cut their deficit to 16-14 at halftime.
Then, by the sound of it, Swinney gave an impassioned speech in the locker room during the break.
“It wasn’t a pretty talk,” Simmons said. “But just said that we needed to focus and we were going to be fine. That was pretty much the main things, and we needed to clean up all of our mistakes that we’re doing because we didn’t play very well on defense coming out. So, just offensively and defensively, being able to come back and eliminate all the mistakes that we made in the first half.”
Clemson (14-0) managed to do that and make just enough plays to edge Ohio State (13-1) for a 29-23 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
Following a lackluster start, the Tigers dialed back in mentally according to Simmons and did what they needed to do to win.
“The main thing I would say was just change everyone’s mindset – the focus wasn’t really there,” he said. “People were doing their jobs, but they weren’t doing it effectively. I wouldn’t say they were busting, but they still needed to … Maybe a D-end didn’t squeeze as much as he needed to. It was just small things like that. So, after we fixed all that, then we started playing a lot better defense.”
After passing their first playoff test against Justin Fields, J.K. Dobbins and the Buckeyes, the Tigers have a couple of weeks to prepare for the national championship game against Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow and LSU at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Jan. 13.
“I love a good challenge,” Simmons said. “Just like this game, playing against Justin and J.K. and all their great receivers that they have and their veteran O-line, it was a great challenge for everyone on the defense. So, these games you dream for. You don’t ever want to dream about playing a championship game where everything’s going to be simple. You always want to have a good matchup.”
Clemson’s last trip to New Orleans did not go as planned, when the Tigers fell to Alabama, 24-6, in the CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018.
Simmons is still bitter about that night in the Superdome and hopes to leave New Orleans in a better mood this time around as the 2019 national champs.
“I’ve got a salty taste in my mouth just from that game,” Simmons said. “We weren’t very focused in that game. So, I know this team, we won’t have that issue, just going down there. We know what we need to do, we know what we have to do to get there, to get what we want. I want to do this for the seniors that weren’t able to win there.”
Clemson is going back to the national championship game after once again winning the Fiesta Bowl over Ohio State. Get your official Fiesta Bowl champs gear right here!