TAMPA, Fla. -- Shortly before the carnage came two conversations.
After Michigan's Floyd Simmons gained not-quite-four yards on a fourth-and-four play in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier watched as referee Jeff Maconaghy awarded a first down in spite of the fact that the nose of the ball didn't reach the first-down marker. Spurrier asked a nearby official for an explanation. Spurrier's memory of the exchange goes like this:
Spurrier: "You know the ball did not touch the first-down marker?"
Official: "I know it didn't."
Spurrier: "Well, why'd he give it to 'em?"
Official: "I don't know."
"That's what he said. We felt like he was pointing the wrong way. I asked if he meant that way," Spurrier said later, pointing in opposite directions. "He wasn't going to change his mind."
As the Gamecocks' defense prepared to retake the field following a booth review of the play, the conversation turned to big plays. After the apparent optical illusion that cost them a critical stop while trailing by a point, 22-21, free safety D.J. Swearinger implored his teammates to not leave the game in the hands of the officials. In the huddle, sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney internalized this sentiment. If a Gamecock was to make a big play, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2011 would make it. "When they gave them that first down," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said, "it made him turn it up a notch."
Michigan took the field for its first-down play. Quarterback Devin Gardner handed off to Vincent Smith. Then...
"That's the hardest hit I've ever seen in my coaching career," said Ward, a 24-year veteran of the profession.
On the sideline, receiver Bruce Ellington -- who would later catch the game-winning touchdown -- never saw Clowney cruise missile into Smith six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Ellington didn't see Smith's helmet finally fall to earth 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. "I just heard it," Ellington said. "I kind of jumped." After he finally saw the play, Ellington still couldn't believe it. "Man," he said. "That's a freak of nature."
South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt did see the hit, but the visual couldn't compete with the noise the collision produced. "It sounded," Surratt said, "like a car wreck."
The ball popped free as Smith careened toward the ground. In a move that will only further endear him to the 32 NFL general managers who covet him, the 6-foot-5, 273-pound Clowney plucked the ball from the turf and ran for a yard before the pile collapsed on top of him. "I was trying," Clowney said, "to score a touchdown." Within seconds, word of the hit had traveled around the world on Twitter. Within minutes, people across the country stared at their phones or their tablets and watched Clowney splatter Smith on a continuous loop. A debate raged as to where the hit ranked in the pantheon of football collisions. The closest comparison was the montage of Forest Whitaker's Jefferson in Fast Times at Ridgemont High after his car was vandalized.
The hit was perfect. It was clean. Clowney struck Smith's chest first. Smith, to his credit, popped up immediately. "He's a tough dude," Clowney said. Meanwhile, Clowney laughed at the notion that the hit was revenge for Smith's inadvertent first-half collision with Clowney's -- what's the phrase? -- first-round draft picks that left Clowney on the ground in pain. "He laughed about it," Clowney said. "I said, 'I'm going to get you later on.'"
That Clowney's hit overshadowed a back-and-forth contest between two excellent teams, one that finally turned on a 32-yard touchdown pass from a backup quarterback to a guy who also plays point guard on the school's basketball team with 11 seconds remaining, should explain the beauty of the hit. Everything else in the Gamecocks' 33-28 win -- the gutsy play of South Carolina quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, that final catch by Ellington, the creativity of Michigan's offense with Devin Gardner comfortable at quarterback and Denard Robinson playing a Swiss Army Knife position -- seemed secondary to that moment when Clowney met Smith and millions of people simultaneously said "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!"
The collision actually required a perfect storm of circumstances.
First, Spurrier had to yank Clowney near the end of the first half because Clowney looked and played tired. This angered Clowney, and he promised himself he'd play hard enough to stay on the field. Second, the officials had to make that curious call on the measurement after the fake punt. This not only fired up the entire South Carolina defense, but it also inspired Ward to be aggressive on the next play in an attempt to grab back the momentum.
Ward called a stunt named Cali. It requires Clowney to dip inside to allow the boundary corner (Victor Hampton) access to an outside rushing lane.
Meanwhile, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges had called a Power run to the left side. Wolverines offensive tackle Taylor Lewan -- whose play against Clowney on Tuesday further solidified his place near the top of the NFL draft if he chooses to turn pro -- noticed something amiss about Clowney's alignment. "The end lined up on me in such a gray area that I had to call a Deuce to the inside," Lewan said. Lewan explained that a Deuce call ties the tackle to the guard, and their responsibilities are the lineman nearest the guard and the backside linebacker. By making the Deuce call, Lewan had untied himself from tight end Mike Kwiatkowski, who had anticipated working in tandem with Lewan on the play. Lewan said Kwiatkowski didn't hear the Deuce call, and video replays make that quite obvious. Kwiatkowski fired off the line at an angle that would have been perfect had he and Lewan been working a combo block. But Lewan was working a combo block with guard Ricky Barnum. Clowney, the owner of one of college football's quickest first steps, shot the gap before Kwiatkowski could realize what happened. "He's got that little slip move," Spurrier said. "When they come at him, they get nothing but air." Smith never had a chance. "That miscommunication," Lewan said. "Those are the plays that can lose games."
On the next play, South Carolina's Shaw hit Ace Sanders for a 31-yard touchdown. At some point between the hit and Ellington's catch for the win, someone pulled Clowney aside on the sideline, pulled out a smartphone and showed him footage of the clip on YouTube. "Somebody just said, 'Make a big play,'" Clowney said. "It just came to me."
All it ultimately took was a properly motivated freak of nature, a prescient stunt call, a misheard offensive line call and a seemingly botched measurement that left everyone in garnet seeing red. "I'm glad the ref did that now," Spurrier said.