MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – They clutched the oranges high above their heads, cheering as they shook their fists back and forth. A few moments after the end of Friday’s Orange Bowl, Clemson players lined the top of a stage in front of thousands of Tigers fans who refused to leave their seats at Sun Life Stadium.
The players were armed with handfuls of oranges and weren't afraid to launch them sporadically into the crowd. Even head coach Dabo Swinney, grinning from ear to ear, got into the mix by grabbing an occasional orange from the top of the Orange Bowl trophy and hurling it into the stands. Fans treated the fruit like guitar picks handed down from rock stars.
Only two seasons ago, on this same field and in this same stadium, Clemson’s growth under Swinney had seemingly stalled. But the Tigers’ thrilling 40-35 win over Ohio State in Friday’s Orange Bowl proved Clemson’s last trip to Miami was an aberration. These Tigers belong on a national stage, and they showed it by upending a Buckeyes squad that had won 24 of its last 25 contests. For that reason, they weren’t afraid to celebrate.
“Two years ago, it was probably unthinkable for a lot of people, when I sat at this same podium after the butt-whippin’ we took, that we would be 22-4 since that night,” Swinney said. “We talked at that last trip about how it wouldn’t be 30 years before we got back. Well, we got back.”
Clemson’s last trip to the Orange Bowl resulted in a 70-33 throttling at the hands of West Virginia on Jan. 4, 2012. Swinney spoke many times this week about the negativity surrounding the program after that embarrassing outcome. But the two-year turnaround came full-circle Friday night, when senior quarterback Tajh Boyd closed his record-setting career in spectacular fashion and gave Clemson its first-ever BCS victory.
Boyd completed 31-of-40 passes and accounted for 505 total yards of offense – second-most all-time to Florida’s Tim Tebow in a BCS game – and five touchdowns. His favorite target on the night, junior receiver Sammy Watkins, earned Orange Bowl MVP with a bowl-record 227 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The duo became too much for the Buckeyes to handle as coach Urban Meyer’s crew lost consecutive games for the first time in the coach’s tenure.
Boyd, Watkins and the Tigers looked to be facing another Orange Bowl letdown early in the fourth quarter, when Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller threw his second passing touchdown of the day to give the Buckeyes their first lead of the game. The teams had traded scores all night in a back-and-forth contest of top-15 offenses that lived up to its billing. Staring at the end of his career, Boyd gathered his offense and responded in kind by driving 75 yards in 13 plays and capping the series with a five-yard touchdown pass to Stanton Seckinger. That score gave Clemson a 40-35 lead with just over five minutes to play.
But no lead was safe in a game in which both teams combined for 1,003 yards of offense, only 29 shy of the bowl record. Miller and the Buckeyes’ offense marched into Clemson territory eyeing the go-ahead score, but Bashaud Breeland sacked Miller and forced a fumble, which Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey recovered. The Tigers hoped to run the clock out from there. Ohio State had other plans, however, and they intercepted Boyd on a long third down to get one final shot at the end zone.
But the Tigers’ defense stepped up again. Two plays later, linebacker Stephone Anthony picked off Miller with just over a minute remaining in the game. The Clemson sideline erupted, two years of agony lifting off the players’ shoulders. “We got turnovers,” Anthony said, “and we got stops when we needed ‘em.”
Swinney said this roster, especially Boyd, tailback Roderick McDowell and a host of other seniors, took on the challenge when they were needed most Friday.
“They just responded,” the coach said. “They didn’t pout. They didn’t put their head down. They went out and found a way to get another win.”
On one sideline, the Buckeyes watched as Clemson players celebrated atop the Orange Bowl stage. Ohio State players ended the night with notions of unfinished business lingering around the program. The Buckeyes had won 24 straight games in Meyer’s two seasons before the team’s loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game last month. In 2012, an undefeated Ohio State team was ineligible for a shot at a BCS title because of NCAA sanctions. The roster came up short again this season, except this time they closed the year with a losing streak.
The Buckeyes will lose Hyde and other seniors, and it’s likely Miller, junior linebacker Ryan Shazier and other key players could depart early, as well. Meyer said the Orange Bowl was an unfortunate ending to defining class of players at Ohio State.
“It’s going to sting for a while, probably a long while,” Meyer said, “because we just didn’t finish and it was right there to finish.”
Clemson didn’t finish with a national championship, but in a sense, Swinney and the Tigers did what just what they’d set out to do. The memories of their last Orange Bowl appearance gradually faded away as Swinney’s players danced atop the stage on Friday night. No more was this a program that can’t remain relevant on a national level. This group of players, according to Boyd, was entirely different from the youthful roster that left Miami as losers after the 2011 season.
“Obviously it was a disappointing and disheartening loss,” Boyd said of the game against West Virginia. “But it’s something that you’ll never forget. During that season, we were a very young team. We didn’t understand success and what came with it.
“For us, it was all about the transition and continuing to move forward year in and year out. You’ve seen the accumulation of what we are now, a driven team who knows how to win games.”
The growing legacy of Swinney as a coach coincided with the culminating legacy of a senior quarterback who finished as the winningest passer in Clemson history. Boyd didn’t cap his career with a crystal ball, but he helped build the Tigers’ program into exactly what Swinney envisioned when he recruited the quarterback.
“I sat at [Boyd’s] house, at his kitchen table in Virginia,” Swinney said. “Jim Tressel was in the back yard, and Mike Belotti was in the front yard waiting for me to leave. I said, 'Tajh, if you’ll believe in me, we will change Clemson' …All these seniors, they changed Clemson.”
Boyd wouldn’t have had it any other way. “I couldn’t pick a better way to go out as a senior,” he said.
Boyd might be leaving, as will others who played integral roles in fulfilling Swinney’s promise. But they’re leaving Clemson in better shape than they found it. Not long ago the notion of this Tigers squad handling itself against a Big Ten powerhouse like Ohio State would be laughable on a national level. Now Clemson is one of at least two ACC teams – BCS title-bound Florida State being the other – that’s competing with the nation’s big boys year in and year out.
At the end of the Tigers’ celebration on the field on Friday, the Clemson players joined in a loud chant with the thousands of remaining fans in Sun Life Stadium: “C-L-E-M-S-O-N.” The team and its fans weren’t celebrating a national title, which was the original goal when the Tigers entered the season as a preseason top-10 team. But they’re getting close, and that’s all Swinney could ask for. “We didn’t quite get to the top of the mountain like we wanted, but we can see it,” the coach said. “Tonight, we took another step forward.”