MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In December of 2012, the high school football team buses reached the town line in Gainesville, Ga., and were greeted by police cruisers with lights flashing. They escorted the buses to Gainesville High, where a crowd of hundreds was preparing to launch a post-midnight celebration of the school’s first state football title.
That magical night was made possible by a precocious quarterback, Deshaun Watson. Watson would go on to attend college at Clemson, which is on the cusp of a similar celebration after its 37–17 win over No. 4 Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Thursday evening. Watson chose Clemson as his collegiate home in part because he saw the rural town of 14,000 as a kindred spirit to Gainesville (35,000), both tight-knit communities where football dominates the daily conversation and dictates the mood each week in the fall.
The No. 1 Tigers haven’t won the national title since 1981, but they can end that drought on Jan. 11 against No. 2 Alabama, which shut out No. 3 Michigan State 38–0 in the Cotton Bowl. A win in the title game would certainly lead to a similar celebration—a catharsis spilling out in one searing ball of joy, tears and community. “We want the big boy,” Watson said after the game. “We want the natty.”
Nearly three years after that star-kissed night in Gainesville, Watson put Clemson on his shoulders in the Orange Bowl by spinning through, darting past and zipping passes over the Oklahoma defense. Watson ran for 145 yards and passed for 187 more to win the game’s offensive MVP award. He also atoned for a critical mistake at the end of the first half by playing a flawless second half.
There were plenty of stalwart performances for the Tigers, who played most of the game without their second best player, defensive end Shaq Lawson, who left in the first quarter with a knee injury. (He said afterward that he plans to play in the title game.) Tailback Wayne Gallman carried 26 times for 150 yards with two touchdowns, linebacker Ben Boulware recorded eight tackles, one sack and an interception and Clemson’s defensive line mauled Oklahoma up front and stymied Sooners star back Samaje Perine (58 yards on 15 carries).
But on a night when momentum ping-ponged back and forth, Watson was a steady maestro. He helped the Tigers rack up 530 yards, a number that doesn’t do justice to their offensive dominance because they sat on the ball for most of the fourth quarter while nursing a lead.
Watson recovered from an uneven first-half effort, which ended with Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez intercepting him on a jump ball in the end zone. It was a similar occurrence to what transpired in Clemson’s victory over Florida State in November, as Watson accidentally spiked the ball on a third down to stop the clock and cost Clemson a shot at scoring a touchdown against the Seminoles. But against Florida State, much like Thursday night, the Tigers rolled in the second half. Clemson blew past the Sooners 21–0 in the final two quarters thanks to execution, physical dominance and a lack of mistakes.
Watson turned the game by orchestrating two touchdown drives early in the third quarter. His defining pass of the night came with about four minutes remaining in the period, when he zipped a bullet to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow in such a high window that only Renfrow could snag it. Renfrow then spun away from a defender to complete a 35-yard score.
In a matchup of dynamic quarterbacks, Watson’s best attribute may have been mistake avoidance. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 311 yards, but when the Sooners needed him to step up after injuries to Perine and second-leading rusher Joe Mixon, Mayfield sputtered. He passed for only 85 yards in the second half and tossed a pair of crippling interceptions, as the Sooners became one-dimensional, predictable and ultimately impotent.
Clemson’s offense in the first half proved a tease, as the Tigers outgained the Sooners but couldn’t capitalize. Clemson needed a dazzling fake punt to score its lone touchdown before the break. In a vacuum, a fake punt on fourth-and-four from the opposing 44-yard line isn’t that unusual. But after Tigers punter Andy Teasdall went rogue on a fourth-and-15 play in the ACC title game against North Carolina, the trickery wasn’t expected.
Teasdall went so far at media day this week as to tell ESPN that he hoped to “stay out of the spotlight.” Instead, he captured it for all the right reasons, lobbing a perfect pass over two Sooners defenders to Christian Wilkins, a 315-pound freshman defensive tackle. Wilkins deftly caught the pass and rumbled for a 31-yard gain to the Oklahoma 13-yard line. Two plays later, Watson danced into the end zone from five yards out.
Watson finished with one touchdown rushing, one passing and continued one of the most impressive statistics in college football: He is undefeated in games as a starter that he finishes without injury. If that streak continues on Jan. 11, Clemson fans may want to throw a party that resembles what Watson experienced in Gainesville, Ga., three years ago.
They’ve been waiting for a generation around Clemson, where football and the community are intricately intertwined. This time around, however, there may be a few more folks waiting for Watson when the buses pull back into the stadium.