MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – Dabo Swinney was in no mood to talk about Clemsoning.
“Next question,” the coach snapped.
It’s time to put that term to rest.
Clemson, a team once so known for such inexplicable stumbles that a derisive term was coined for it, is headed to the national championship game with a still-perfect record after a 37-17 smackdown of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Thursday night.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson turned in another stellar all-around performance, beating the Sooners with his arm and his legs. The defense did the rest, shutting down Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma’s prolific offense even after losing star defensive end Shaq Lawson to a knee injury early in the game.
“It’s been 34 years since Clemson had a chance to win a national championship,” Swinney said. “I knew that we would be here. It was just a matter of when.”
Clemson (14-0) dominated the second half and shut down Oklahoma’s high-scoring offense that 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 unblemished mark was no fluke.
“For some reason, we were the underdog in the playoffs,” receiver Charone Peake said. “I was glad to see us come out and dominate.”
Looking to become the first team in FBS history to finish 15-0, Clemson will face Alabama in the Jan. 11 national championship game in Glendale, Arizona. Alabama beat Michigan State 38-0 later Thursday in the Cotton Bowl.
“We’re not worried about who we play,” said linebacker Ben Boulware, named the defensive MVP.
Watson certainly lived up to the hype of being a Heisman finalist, accounting for 332 yards and earning the offensive MVP award.
He got off to a slow start passing, but came back to complete 16-for-31 through the air 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.
“Deshaun Watson is the best player in the country. It’s just that simple,” Swinney said. “People can have their own opinions or whatever, but there ain’t a better one than No. 4. This guy is special in every regard.”
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 Mayfield with 1:34 remaining, and the Sooner 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 interception, 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.
This wasn’t just a beating.
It was a beatdown.
Mayfield, who threw for 311 yards but was picked off twice, wobbled off the field in the closing minutes after taking a shot to the head. Perine went out for a while with a leg injury. No. 2 running back Joe Mixon appeared to be knocked unconscious and never returned.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve been the more physical team now for about seven weeks in a row,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said, “but we weren’t tonight.”