ATLANTA — Tajh Boyd was probably one win from being in the room in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. Had the vote taken place after the bowl season, he would have been sitting front and center.
Boyd put on a one-man offensive show in the Georgia Dome, leading the Clemson Tigers to the upset win of the year, a last-second 25-24 victory over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, a game Clemson never led until the final play.
In so doing, Boyd had one of those “holy smokes” games, the kind where the highlights get passed around email and social media chains for weeks to come.
The numbers were nothing short of extraordinary. Against an LSU defense that was once considered the best in the nation, Boyd completed a career high 36 passes for 346 yards. He rushed for an additional 22, but that doesn’t count the side-to-side juking, dodging and spinning he did to extend plays and cause nearly every LSU defender to miss him at least once.
Down by 11 points in the fourth quarter, Boyd orchestrated three consecutive scoring drives, one touchdown bracketed by two field goals, the final kick coming as time expired. And while the winning points will be credited to field goal kicker Chandler Catanzaro, the credit goes to Boyd, who won this one with his arm, his legs, and his leadership.
With LSU defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo chasing him all over the field and linebacker Kevin Minter hitting him so hard every fan in the Georgia Dome winced, Boyd completed 14 passes for 159 yards in the fourth quarter, none of them from the comfort of a solid pocket.
And it wasn’t just the fourth quarter. During one drive early in the third, Boyd completed a 31-yard strike to DeAndre Hopkins, then scrambled around for four seconds before completing a shovel pass to Roderick McDowell for 4 yards. Then he ran for 2 yards before firing an 11-yard bullet to Hopkins for a touchdown.
It was the 10th consecutive game in which Hopkins caught a touchdown pass, breaking an ACC record that went all the way back to 1990 and Virginia’s Herman Moore. Without Boyd, however, Moore’s record would likely still be very much intact.
“This Tajh Boyd was phenomenal,” Les Miles said afterward. “I didn’t expect what you might call heroic efforts on his part.”
When you looked at the stats it was hard to believe that Clemson ever trailed. LSU had only 11 yards rushing in the first half. Granted they only ran eight rushing plays, but it wasn’t like the passing game was carrying the day. Zach Mettenberger was sacked six times on the night, four in first quarter.
In the first half Clemson ran more than twice as many offensive plays as LSU, had more than double the total yards, and three times as many first downs. Yet Clemson trailed by a single point thanks to an extra point that was blocked by LSU tackle Benny Logan.
The question for Clemson was simple: How did you not win this one by more than two points?
For LSU it was simple as well: Who was calling the plays and what the heck where they thinking?
An LSU team that won 10 games by controlling field position, managing the clock and stepping up defensively in the clutch did none of those things in Atlanta. Jeremy Hill ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns, including a 57-yard touchdown run at the start of the second half to put LSU up by eight.
He averaged 10.3 yards per touch and was the workhorse on every possession. But Miles called his number only 12 times. As a result LSU had a total of 99 net yards on the ground to go with Mettenberger’s comparatively anemic 120 through the air.
Nothing was more head-scratching than the play calling in the final two minutes. After Boyd threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins to put Clemson within two, Coach Dabo Swinney called a two-point conversion play that failed. That gave LSU the ball and the lead with 2:42 remaining, a seemingly perfect time to run the leading rusher of the night.
Instead, Miles called three pass plays, one completion for 8 yards and two incompletions to stop the clock. LSU had to punt, giving Clemson the ball and momentum.
With 1:39 left, Boyd completed five passes, ran to the middle of the field, and set up the 37-yard kick for the win.
It was Clemson’s 11th win of the year, a feat not seen since its national championship season in 1981.
“We made history,” Swinney said. “These young men deserve a lot of credit for playing their hearts out . . . Tajh, he played like an All-American. “We asked a lot of him, and he delivered a lot. That’s the kind of leader he is.”
Then reflecting on the night, Swinney smiled, shook his head and said, “We ran a hundred (offensive) plays. A hundred plays. That is something.”
One correction coach: Tajh Boyd is something. Those 100 plays didn’t run themselves.