MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As the final seconds ticked down in Clemson’s 37-17 romp over Oklahoma on Thursday night in the Orange Bowl, Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware found a TV camera, glared into it and shouted, "Y’all can’t doubt us now. Y’all can’t doubt 14-0!"
Truth be told, No. 1 Clemson still likely will be doubted when the Tigers go on to Arizona to play in the national title game on Jan. 11. And that is probably a bad thing for the Tigers’ next opponent.
Alabama rolled into the Title match-up with the Tigers by crushing Michigan State 38-0 later Thursday night, and sure enough, the Tide has already been installed as a touchdown favorite over Clemson. It’s a position the Tigers no doubt will relish. It works for them.
The program that had been a punch line for so many folks in the past decade — for having lots of talent but always seeming to stub its toe — is punching back and primed to punch its way to the national title.
"Our team has shown heart, had guts all year long, and it’s amazing to me that I told them, ‘You ain’t favored to win the damn game, but we ain’t no underdog,’" said coach Dabo Swinney, now 8-4 in his past 12 games against Top 10 teams. "Nobody believes in this team except these guys, and they just got a great heart, and it showed tonight."
The Tigers did what they almost always do these days. They took out their frustration and pounded away on their opponent, who looked caught off guard by just how physical Clemson is. The Tigers mauled the Sooners, outrushing them 312 yards to 67 — dominating the line of scrimmage. What made it all the more impressive is they did so without their best player, All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson, who injured his knee while maneuvering during a line stunt, he said.
Lawson’s understudy, freshman Austin Bryant — a 6-foot-4, 268-pounder who looks a lot older than 19 — filled in and caused more than his share of havoc.
"He was ready when it was his turn," said veteran DE coach Marion Hobby. So was Kevin Dodd, the Tigers’ other DE, another athletic, 275-pounder who notched 3.5 tackles for loss.
"Next man up" is cliche in football these days, but it’s awe-inspiring just how adept Clemson — a young team that had minimal experience entering this season — has been at replacing elite talent on both of its lines. Tigers O-line coach Robbie Caldwell called his rebuilt front the best, most cohesive group he’s had since he’s been at Clemson. A big reason for that? Consider the toughness of the guys they’ve had to go up against every day at practice — not just Lawson and Dodd this season, but last year, too, with former standouts Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett.
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Tigers go "good-on-good" for 20 minutes each day.
"We practice physical," Caldwell said. "We thud-it-up pretty good. It’s old-school stuff, and it’s awesome."
This was a vintage Clemson performance. The team that finished No. 3 in the country in tackles for loss had nine, plus five sacks.
Venables, the old Bob Stoops protege and former OU defensive coordinator, was on the Sooners’ staff 15 years ago when Oklahoma’s suffocating D sparked a national title win on this same field. Venables said this group feels similar to those Sooners in how they’ve been repeatedly doubted and how physically they respond. That attitude also carried over to the Tigers’ running backs, especially Wayne Gallman (150 yards on 26 carries). Both Stoops and his defensive leader, Eric Striker, lamented over how poorly OU tackled Thursday night.
"I think that hurt us the most," Striker said. "You know, at this point, talent doesn’t win the game. It’s the will. People with the biggest will are going to win the game, and they seemed to just have that edge and that will about them in the second half, and we didn’t. Hats off to them. They’re a great team, a very competitive team."
Clemson has now won four bowl games in a row under Swinney. Tajh Boyd — a former star QB for the Tigers who celebrated with Clemson players on the field Thursday — feels a strong connection to this team. He was the quarterback two years ago when Clemson beat Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team here for the school’s first Orange Bowl win under Swinney. He was also the Tigers’ QB two years before that here — when Clemson got throttled, 70-33, by West Virginia.
"We had to lose one to win one to know exactly what it takes," Boyd said. "We built the foundation and now these guys put the roof on it and put in some windows. Watch: We’re about to go on a run and win national championships now."