Deshaun Watson turned in another stellar two-way performance, running for one touchdown, passing for another and accounting for 332 yards to lead top-ranked Clemson to a 37-17 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Thursday.
Clemson (14-0) dominated the second half and shut down Oklahoma’s high-scoring offense, which had averaged 52 points over its last seven contests. The Sooners (11-2) actually came into the game as favorites, but the Tigers showed their perfect record was no fluke.
Until this season, the Tigers were known for such inexplicable disappointments that a term was coined for it: Clemsoning.
With one more win, they’ll be known as something else: national champions.
Watson certainly lived up to the hype of being a Heisman finalist. He got off to a slow start passing, but came back to complete 16 of 31 passes for 187 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow that gave Clemson some breathing room late in the third quarter. Watson carried the running load in the early going, finishing with 145 yards on 24 carries and scoring the Tigers’ first touchdown on a 5-yard run.
The game went back and forth through the first half, the Sooners jumping ahead on an impressive first possession that culminated with Samaje Perine’s 1-yard drive. Oklahoma went to the locker room with a 17-16 lead after Mark Andrews hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield with 1:34 remaining, and the Sooners defense came up with a pick in the end zone on an ill-advised throw by Watson into triple-coverage.
If Watson was flustered by that pick, he sure didn’t show it after the break.
Clemson took the second-half kickoff and breezed down the field, covering 75 yards in 12 plays to reclaim the lead on Wayne Gallman’s 1-yard run, the first of his two TDs. Oklahoma’s first possession was the exact opposite: three straight yards-losing plays forced the Sooners to punt, setting the tone for the struggles they would face the rest of the game.
Clemson, looking to become the first team in FBS history to finish 15-0, advanced to face either second-ranked Alabama or third-ranked Michigan State in the Jan. 11 finale in Arizona. Those teams met Thursday night in the Cotton Bowl.
On a balmy evening in south Florida, the orange-clad Clemson faithful gobbled up at least three-fourths of the seats at Sun Life Stadium, turning what was supposed to be a neutral-site game into Death Valley South.
They had plenty to cheer about, even after Clemson lost one of its top players, defensive end Shaq Lawson. He went out with a knee injury in the opening minutes and watched the rest of the game from the bench.
His defensive mates did just fine without him. A unit that surrendered more than 30 points in its last two games sacked Mayfield five times and held the Sooners to 121 yards over the final two quarters.
Clemson piled up 550 yards in the game, sealing the victory on Gallman’s 4-yard touchdown run with 10:48 remaining.
The Tigers played loose throughout, even pulling off some special teams trickery to set up their first TD. Punter Andy Teasdall flipped a 31-yard pass to Christian Wilkins, a 315-pound freshman defensive tackle.
For Oklahoma, it was a disappointing end to a comeback season. After going 8-5 a year ago, including a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, coach Bob Stoops shook up his staff and guided the Sooners within two victories of their first national title since 2000.
This season was a huge upgrade, but it ended with the same result: a dismal loss to Clemson at bowl time.
Mayfield threw for 311 yards and was intercepted twice, the second of which ended his season. After Ben Boulware leaped to make the pick at the goal line, Mayfield dove into Boulware to make the tackle, took a knee to the head and staggered off the field.
Clemson will be going for its first national title since 1981, having shown that it can deal with injuries and any distraction that might come its way. Two days before the national semifinal game, coach Dabo Swinney suspended three players for violating team rules, including speedy receiver Deon Cain, one of the team’s best deep threats.
Swinney insisted that it wouldn’t be a distraction.
He was right.
There’s no Clemsoning with this bunch.