With this decade almost finished, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney reflected on an era with his football program that he still describes as “Little Ole’ Clemson.”
After a 6-7 season in 2010, Swinney said at media day before Saturday’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale that much money had probably been bet on him not still being at Clemson. He is, of course, and he recalled the message that he gave to the Clemson faithful following his second full season as a head coach in college.
“I said in 2010, after the six-win season, ‘We are fixing to have the winning decade in Clemson history,’” Swinney said.
Clemson has had that dominating decade, and the No. 3 Tigers (14-0) finished it at State Farm Stadium with a memorable 29-23 win against No. 2 Ohio State (13-1) at the Fiesta Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal showdown. It was the first game between top 13-0 teams in college football history.
With the win, Clemson extended its longest winning streak in the nation to 29 games while snapping the 19-game winning streak for Ohio State, which was the second longest in college football previously.
“I just know when two great teams get together, it comes down to a few plays, and it did again (Saturday).” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “But, this was a very strange game. I thought we played well. Clemson, give them credit. They have a really good team, and are the defending national champions.”
Although the Buckeyes squandered an early 16-0 lead, Ohio State had a final chance to win against the Tigers after Clemson scored a late touchdown and 2-point conversion to take the lead with 1:49 left. Ohio State drove down the field and had the ball on the 23-yard line with 43 seconds left. Ohio State sophomore quarterback Justin Fields had an open wide receiver in the end zone, but Clemson redshirt junior safety Nolan Turner made the game-sealing interception.
Although he acknowledged Ohio State wasn’t good enough, Day said he did believe that the Buckeyes played well enough to win against Clemson.
“We were right there,” Day said. “It wasn’t like we didn’t play hard, that our guys didn’t execute well or we didn’t make big plays. We did all of those things, and we just came up short in the end. We were right there all the way to the end. That is the way (life) goes.”
Clemson started extremely slow on offense, but sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence provided a much-need spark with key plays, including with his speed on a stunning 67-yard touchdown run just before halftime.
Before the game, Ohio State junior defensive end Chase Young talked about how dynamic Lawrence can be with his ability to run. Lawrence said he worked extremely hard in the offseason to become faster and stronger for the running game.
That sent Clemson to the locker room with a momentum boost, which it used after halftime along with its playoff experience to ultimately finish on top and prove itself against the Buckeyes.
That impressed Swinney.
“It is just the DNA,” Swinney said. “It is our program. It is not just this season. That is just how we are built. One of the things I told them at the half, I thought we took their best punch. I don’t think we could have played worse, but we took their best punch, and it was 16-14. … It is culture. That is what it is. It was awesome to see.”
After Clemson took its first lead after halftime, Ohio State responded with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to regain the advantage at 23-21. As time winded down, Clemson hadn’t responded and the Buckeyes were 2 minutes, 55 seconds away from victory.
Before the drive, Swinney said that Lawrence took over the huddle.
“It was just a real poise,” Swinney said. “There was never a second that I (thought) we were not going to win the game. That is the honest answer. (We) talked about it on the sideline, ‘Man, is this fun or what? I am not really sure how we’re going to win this thing, but we are going to win the game and it is going to be an epic thing.’”
Clemson started to drive down the field, and then the big-time moment happened. It was a play that Clemson had set up the entire game with Lawrence making an impact in the running game.
Lawrence ran the run-pass option play that had Clemson junior running back Travis Etienne leak out into the middle of the field behind the defense. It worked to perfection and Clemson scored a 34-yard touchdown to take the late lead and converted the 2-point conversion.
Lawrence finished with 259 passing yards, 107 rushing yards and three total touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
No. 3 Clemson (14-0) plays No. 1 LSU and senior quarterback Joe Borrow—the Heisman Trophy winner—for the National Championship Jan. 13 in New Orleans. As a new decade starts, though, Clemson has a chance to become the first program to win back-to-back titles in the College Football Playoff era.
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