For the second time in their history, the Clemson Tigers came into the Orange Bowl undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. For the second time, they went into the game as the underdog to the fourth-ranked team.
In keeping with the storyline, for the second time the Tigers won the Orange Bowl after few thought they could. Clemson’s convincing 37-17 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners on Thursday sets them up to play for the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
The Sooners were 3-point favorites heading into the game, but Clemson proved they belonged, trailing only 17-16 at halftime. They could have led, but settled for three field goals instead of touchdowns. Equally important, quarterback DeShaun Watson threw an interception in the end zone late in the first half while in field goal range.
In the second half, Clemson proved they not only belonged in the Orange Bowl, they made a resounding statement they belonged in the championship game.
In a show of pure dominance, the Tigers outscored Oklahoma 21-0 in the second half and proved they deserved their ranking. They proved it on their first possession of the second half.
Clemson drove 75 yards in 12 plays to go on top 23-17. Watson’s 35-yard TD pass to Hunter Renfrow with 4:07 left in the third quarter put the Tigers up 30-17. Wayne Gallman’s 4-yard run early in the final period capped the scoring for Clemson.
The Tigers dominated the second half on both sides of the ball. Oklahoma’s six second-half possessions consisted of three punts, two interceptions and a turnover on downs.
“Our team has showed heart and guts all year long,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “The defense rose up in the second half.”
Swinney was naturally excited about the win, but being ranked No. 1 and an underdog was a motivating factor. His message to his team before the game was simple.
“You aren’t favored to win the game,” he told them, “but you’re no damn underdog!”
Watson showed why he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He ran and passed his way to 332 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Gallman had 150 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield showed why he was in the Heisman running as well. He passed for 311 yards and one touchdown while being harassed all night by the Clemson defense. It was largely up to him because Oklahoma could gain only 67 yards on the ground.
The game was reminiscent of the 1982 Orange Bowl when Clemson entered the game undefeated and seeking a national championship. Despite having two losses, Nebraska was a 4-point favorite over the Tigers.
Clemson’s 22-15 victory gave them their only national title. Then-coach Danny Ford used the slight as a motivator as did Swinney on Thursday.
The way things turned out Thursday, Swinney and the Tigers could care less whether they’re not favored in the championship game.
Just don’t call them underdogs.