MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In the Clemson football pregame offensive meeting early on Thursday, Tigers co-coordinator Jeff Scott got to the front of the room and delivered a simple message. He told the story of head coach Dabo Swinney taking over at Clemson seven years ago and the incremental steps the program has taken to elevate back to college football’s elite.
“For the last seven years we’ve been dreaming about that moment,” Scott said. “Now here we are, seven hours away. We’re at the doorway of greatness, we’re not just going to knock on the door and go home. We’re going to go blow the doors down.”
That’s an apt way to sum up the tenor of No. 1 Clemson’s 37–17 breakthrough evisceration of No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Thursday night. Clemson didn’t just grasp its opportunity in the College Football Playoff semifinal, it seized it in a manner so violent, suffocating and dominant it may finally recast the perception of these unbeaten yet underrated Tigers. “No one seems to pay attention to lil' ole Clemson,” said defensive tackle D.J. Reader. “We like not being paid attention to.”
After Thursday night at Sun Life Stadium, that should change. Resplendent quarterback Deshaun Watson won the game’s offensive MVP with 187 passing yards, 145 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Running back Wayne Gallman churned through the Oklahoma defense for 150 yards with two touchdowns. Clemson’s defense shut out the Sooners in the second half, forcing star quarterback Baker Mayfield into throwing a pair of interceptions.
But the biggest takeaway from this Tigers victory should be the way Clemson rag-dolled Oklahoma in the trenches, something that could portend it bringing home the school’s first national title since 1981. If there has been a theme that has run through the national champions in the modern era, it’s that winners have been defined by dominance on the defensive line as much as star quarterbacks, fancy offenses or bell-cow tailbacks. Clemson’s case for contending for the national title against Alabama in Arizona on Jan. 11 can really be made with two plays.
Clemson's path to the national championship game
Five minutes into the second half, Oklahoma was attempting to retake the lead after Clemson marched down for a touchdown on the first possession of the third quarter to go ahead 23–17. The Sooners ran a backside counter play to Samaje Perine, a 230-pound battering ram who doubles as a running back. Clemson's Reader met Perine in the backfield with violent force. The play resulted in a three-yard loss, but it essentially marked the beginning of the end for the Sooners. Not only did Reader push Perine backward, but the 325-pound tackle hit him so pure that he ended up landing atop of Perine, like a perfectly executed pancake block. “I can relate it to playing baseball,” Reader said. “When you hit the sweet spot of the bat and you don’t really feel it come off the bat. I hit him and didn’t really feel it. It was just a hard hit.”
Perine stayed down for about five minutes after the hit and later said he sprained his left ankle. He would return to the game—he claimed at about 85% health—after backup tailback Joe Mixon was lost when he got leveled by Clemson’s Richard Yeargin. But Perine was never the same, as Oklahoma’s offense became one-dimensional, listless and, ultimately, impotent. “Not having Joe and Samaje for basically the entire second half, that makes a difference,” Sooners offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “We lean on those guys pretty good.”
The second play that summed up Clemson’s dominance came from brains as much as brawn. Oklahoma marched down to the Clemson 30-yard line midway through the third quarter and gambled on a fourth-and-one play. As the Sooners lined up, the Tigers defenders knew from the formation and movement of the tailback that Oklahoma would direct snap the ball to Perine, as it ran that play against TCU in a similar situation earlier this year. “Everyone up front knew exactly what that play was going to be,” Reader said. “Shoutout to coach [Brent] Venables for having us ready. We worked that play a million times in practice.”
That’s a slight exaggeration, as he later clarified it may have been more like 20, but both Reader and fellow lineman Kevin Dodd said they spent most of the night reading the back and tackle and knowing exactly what was coming. When asked how often Clemson knew Oklahoma’s offensive play, Dodd smiled and said, “Pretty much all of them.”
The Tigers entered this season returning just one starter on its offensive and defensive lines. But those ended up being the areas where Clemson dominated most on the biggest night of its season, outrushing the Sooners 312–67. Perine finished the game averaging 3.9 yards per carry, which lowered his 2015 average to 6.1 yards. The Sooners as a team averaged 2.0 yards per carry. Clemson ran for 5.4 yards per attempt, the clear difference in the game.
“They’re one of the reasons we are where we are,” Scott said of the revamped offensive line. “We’ve had a lot of talented skill guys at Clemson the last six or seven years. I think this offensive line group has elevated us now to the next level.”
Clemson also sacked Mayfield five times for 41 yards, as he couldn’t handle the onus of carrying the Sooners by himself with the banged-up backfield. Mayfield’s swagger all week heading into the game wasn’t lost on the Tigers, who delighted in his two-interception implosion in the final two quarters as the mighty Oklahoma offense disappeared. “Coming into this game, he hasn’t been hit that much,” Dodd said. “You hit them enough, they become unaccurate and antsy and want to get out of the pocket. We knew if we could make him throw on the run, we could live with it.”
You could say that Oklahoma’s offense ran right into Clemson’s sweet spot. And after hitting the Sooners so hard the Tigers didn’t even feel it, Clemson looked salty enough in the trenches to bust down one more door and win a national title. Now the Tigers’ revamped front will get the ultimate test as Alabama's defensive line is considered the best in the nation and its offensive line won Joe Moore Award presented to the best unit in the country.
But make no mistake, lil' ole Clemson has some big ole dudes in the trenches, giving it the look of the teams who have accomplished what it is about to attempt against the Crimson Tide on Jan. 11.