With or without star defensive lineman Shaq Lawson, Clemson's defense proves it's one of the nation's finest
As the cannons disgorged confetti and the strains of "Tiger Rag" echoed across the orange-painted stadium, a very large player wearing warm-up pants and an ice pack on his left knee the size of a boulder stood away from his celebrating teammates and uttered perhaps the most important words in the aftermath of Clemson's 37-17 throttling of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
"I'm going to be ready to play in the national championship," said Shaq Lawson, the hobbled Tigers defensive end whose third-down sack of Baker Mayfield on the Sooners' second series augured what kind of night it would be, then agonizingly watched much of the Orange Bowl from the sidelines after leaving with a left knee injury. To hear him tell it, the All-American and ACC defensive player of the year will be on the field on Jan. 11 to kneecap the Alabama offense in the title game. "I'll be back," boomed the most important Clemson player not named DeShaun Watson. "Nothing is going to keep me from playing that game."
It will be ACC vs. SEC. Bring Your Own Guts vs. The Process. New blood vs. blue blood. But before the college football universe looks ahead to the rumble in the desert, before the cognoscenti establishes reasons to once again discount and overlook the No. 1 team in the country on the cusp of a 15–0 season (Alabama opened as a seven-point favorite), Lawson would like to take a moment to get one thing straight: Contrary to the vicious rumors in the hours leading up to the game, Lawson did not get on the opposing team bus on Wednesday after an Orange Bowl luncheon to taunt the Sooners.
"How are you going to get on another bus when you got secret service following you everywhere here?" Lawson said. "It's not true. I can't believe people are actually hearing that story."
What exactly transpired at the Fort Lauderdale parking lot on the eve of the game may remain hazy, but this much has become abundantly clear after the jaw-dropping result of the rematch of last year's Clemson's 40–6 humiliation of Oklahoma in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl: Deep down the Tigers, discounted and disrespected by the oddsmakers and many of the experts ("It was like we had no chance to win this game," says Lawson), were just as angry, just as ornery as the yapping, redemption-thirsty opposing team, even if most of the trash talking this week came from the guys from Norman.
"They were talking junk all week," Lawson said. "No. 91"—defensive end Charles Tapper—"I've never heard about him until this year, and he wouldn't shut his mouth. At the luncheon we saw them at the elevator and he's there talking the whole time. We went to our bus and some of the [Oklahoma] players were coming over and pounding the windows, taking off their shirts and trying to start something. So I got off our bus and went and stood in front of their bus. That was it. We did most of our talking on the field."
And the statement was loud and clear. The Tigers' D, widely regarded in the preseason as the biggest impediment to a potential playoff run, is very good—maybe even elite. Even with Lawson leaving the game after Oklahoma's second series, the Tigers, after looking somewhat suspect in the ACC title game against UNC, solved one of the nation's best offenses—one that had outscored its opponents 52–19 over its last seven games—and subdued one of the country's most effervescent players in Mayfield. After Oklahoma scored with ease on the opening drive, the Tigers spent much of the night keeping Mayfield, who over recent weeks had (rightfully) inspired Johnny Manziel comparisons, off balance and in check, something no team accomplished since Texas in early October.
As Lawson hobbled along the sideline in the first quarter, with a bag of ice wrapped around his knee and a towel over his head, he walked over to defensive end Austin Bryant, the freshman reserve who will likely fill Lawson's shoes next fall (Lawson declared for the NFL draft). "It's your time," Lawson said, of the role his understudy would take on that night. Bryant finished with four tackles and half of a sack. "Austin did so well" he said. "Next man up."
It has been like this all year for Clemson, for a unit that was hit hard over the offseason by a massive exodus. Nine full-time or part-time starters from the 2014 team were gone, including four who were drafted in May. There's a reason why, leading up to the game, Venables said,
"To say we'd be in the playoff, I'd have checked into an insane asylum."
Now Lawson, who had 9.5 sacks on the year and led the nation in tackles for a loss, has a chance of following Vic Beasley in the first round in May, and on the Tiger line there's talent all around him: junior Carlos Watkins and freshman Christian Wilkins have filled the void left by the departed. On Thursday, the Tigers defense, which allowed more than 30 points over its past two games, sacked Mayfield five times and held Oklahoma to 121 yards over the final two quarters. Said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, "The second half of the season, we hadn't had that mentality, that step on their throat, taste blood mentality—until today."
In the next week, you will hear much about DeShaun Watson, Dabo Swinney and the emergence of Wayne Gallman. All those figures and storylines loom large in the rollicking tale of the 2015 Tigers. But just as important to Clemson's ascendance into the elite of college football is its defense, the unit that has been deftly led by Venables since 2011. The defense has taken on the personality of their coach, a man of discipline and of exploding sideline energy (during games other assistant coaches are tasked with the single purpose of holding him back). In the days leading up to the game, his players told stories about their general, about the time last year playing South Carolina when Beasley had a strip sack, with the ball on the ground, a strength coach had to grab Venables to pull him back in order to keep him from jumping on the ball himself. Tales from practices in December, as Venables played the role of Baker Mayfield, and after Lawson clocked him on a play ("I was running too fast, and I couldn't stop," says Lawson), the coach just bounced back up. Says Lawson, "I was like, I hope I didn't kill my coach."
Beyond the emergence of the inexperienced defense, the Tigers are a team that defies reason and all logic. No team with a negative turnover margin on the season has won a national semifinal or championship game in the playoff/BCS era; Clemson, which enters the final with a -1 margin, could be the first to do so. There's only one true carryover on either side of the line on this year's team (Eric Mac Lain), but the Tigers' complete dominance in the trenches on Thursday is evidence that they are somehow better up front on both sides than a year ago.
They will have to continue to take chances against an Alabama team that will not beat itself—they will have to remain loose off the field, nimble with their play calling and bold with their game plan. Watson will have to play a near-perfect game against a defense that just humiliated Connor Cook and the Spartan offense. Gallman will have to make plays against a D that held the Spartans to 29 yards on 26 carries.
And so it was fitting that it was a play that made you question a coach's sanity that propelled the team to the championship game: in the most important game of his coaching career—a national championship invite on the line, his team at the OU 44 facing fourth-and-four—coach Dabo Swinney called for a fake punt that would have punter Andy Teasdall (the dude who incredulously called his own fake punt in the ACC championship game) throw the ball to the 322-pound Wilkins.
But most of all, the Lawson and the Clemson defense will have to rise to the occasion one more time this year, against an Alabama team that just dropped 38 points against a purportedly excellent Spartan defense. For this Tiger team, a championship run was always going to be about the defense. This is, after all, a team whose signature moment from 2015 was the defense stuffing Notre Dame's two-point conversion at the end of a 24–22 win in October. Now, it was playing their best defensive game with their star on the bench in the biggest game of the year.
Three hours before midnight on New Year's Eve, outside the stadium on a swampy, double-layer-deodorant night, as players in suits emerged from the stadium tunnel and filed to the buses outside, a horde of orange-clad fans waiting outside cheered. They cheered, but the celebration felt muted and restrained. Which was the way it should be, of course. Yes, what the faithful had just witnessed was the biggest Clemson win since clinching the national title in 1981.
But there is still so much more work to be done.