MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — They need a new definition for “Clemsoning” now, a description that has nothing to do with choking, stumbling against lesser opponents or stepping on rakes. Maybe the phrase can just be retired, or at least shoved into a storage shed for a few years. These Clemson Tigers share no faulty qualities with their recent forbearers. They blasted their program’s reputation into obsolescence, the same way they ambushed the Oklahoma Sooners. They did it with overwhelming force, with unabashed confidence, with no care for bloodlines.
Top-seeded Clemson advanced on Thursday night to the national title game with a 37-17 thrashing of No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, the 14th and most convincing victory of their season. They scored 21 unanswered points in the second half, turning a narrow Sooners halftime lead into a mauling. As Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops mourned another high-profile bowl loss, the Tigers will carry their unbeaten season to Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 11, when they will meet No. 2 Alabama and play for the school’s first national championship since 1981.
“If Clemsoning means winning 14 in a row,” defensive tackle D.J. Reader said, “I’ll take Clemsoning every day.”
Clemson’s defense harassed star Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, sacking him five times, intercepting him twice and ultimately knocking him out of the game late in the fourth quarter, when Mayfield tackled linebacker Ben Boulware after an interception and staggered off the field. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, both sophomores, rushed for 295 yards on 50 combined carries.
The thoroughness of the victory made it easy to forget that Clemson, despite its No. 1 ranking and unblemished record, had entered as a four-point underdog. “We’re just little ol’ Clemson,” Coach Dabo Swinney said. “We won 17 in a row, but we’re still the underdog.”
There was nothing little about Clemson on Thursday. Their fans packed at least three-quarters of Sun Life Stadium. “The whole state was here,” Swinney said. “It was special.” The sea of orange provided a statement about how the program has grown under Swinney. Its recruiting has rocketed, and players boast of the family atmosphere he has created. No one laughs anymore at the declaration Swinney made when he took over six years ago as head coach — when he said Clemson would compete for national titles.
“He didn’t have street cred then,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “He’s got plenty of street cred now. This has been coming, this moment. We may not win the national championship. But we’re building a program.”
If there could be a defining play in a 20-point whipping, it happened midway through the third quarter, and it happened in fitting fashion. Clemson led 23-17, and Oklahoma faced fourth and one at the Tigers’ 30-yard line. Clemson prepared for a specific play Venables spotted watching film of the Sooners against TCU: Mayfield would line up in shotgun formation and walk to his right as if calling an audible, only for the center to snap directly to running back Samaje Perine.
“We probably ran the play 20 times [in practice this week],” Reader said. “Coach V does a great job. We think he’s crazy sometimes. He knows exactly what play is coming.”
Sure enough, Mayfield lined up in shotgun. And sure enough, he walked to his right and started signaling. When he did, defensive tackle Scott Pagano started screaming to watch for the direct snap. Perine caught the snap and bulled ahead. A wall of waiting Tigers stoned him. Five plays later, Watson hit wide receiver Hunter Renfrow for a 35-yard touchdown pass, and the game belonged to Clemson.
“That was such a big stop,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “That definitely changed the game, for sure.”
It also could have been expected. Swinney built Clemson like an SEC team, which means he started by finding defensive linemen with alarming power and speed and then recruited more of them than he needed. Those Clemson defensive linemen, beasts all of them, shredded the Sooners in violent waves, even as the nation’s leader in tackles for loss watched most of the game from their sideline in sweats. Defensive end Shaq Lawson exited with a knee injury suffered early in the first quarter. (“I’ll be ready to play” in the national championship, Lawson said afterward.)
Carlos Watkins tipped Mayfield’s pass in the third quarter, which led to linebacker’s B.J. Goodson’s interception. Kevin Dodd recorded 3
“They were good,” Reader said. “We felt like we were dominant. We knew they couldn’t compete with us. We knew our best was better than their best.”
Watson started Clemson’s first possession of the second quarter with a 40-yard dash to extricate the Tigers from their own goal line. The drive bogged from there, and Swinney sensed tightness in his team. “I thought we needed a play,” he said later. On fourth and four from the Oklahoma 44-yard line, Swinney sent out his punt team and called “UConn” — a fake punt they practice every Wednesday named for Wilkins, 6-foot-4, 315-pound freshman defensive tackle from Connecticut.
“When I first called it, they all looked at me like, really?” Swinney said. “I said, ‘That’s right! Let’s go!’ ”
Clemson coaches had noticed that Oklahoma’s “punt safe” formation, which the Sooners were in, would be vulnerable to a fake. “We just knew there were some holes in there,” Wilkins said. And so punter Andy Teasdall caught the snap and stepped back to pass. Down the left sideline lumbered Wilkins, who played tight end his sophomore season, running a wheel route like a front loader. Teasdall lobbed a wobbly spiral in his direction. Wilkins plucked it from the sky and rumbled to the 13-yard line. The play energized — and surprised — Clemson’s offense.
“We just happened to look up at the screen,” guard Jay Guillermo said, “and it’s big old Christian Wilkins running down the field.”
Two plays later, Watson scooted five yards for a touchdown, and Clemson had its first lead, 10-7, about two minutes into the second quarter.
The Tigers drubbed the Sooners in a bowl game last year, too, and the familiarity led players to lob trash talk all week. Antipathy simmered on the field during pregame warm-ups, about 75 minutes before kickoff. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander sauntered to the Oklahoma side of the field, where Mayfield was tossing passes, wireless headphones covering his ears. Alexander talked in Mayfield’s face, shadowing him as Mayfield attempted to walk away. Mayfield laughed, patted Alexander on the shoulder and held out his hand. Alexander ignored it. The jawing lasted about 30 seconds, until an Oklahoma coach moved between the players and ordered the Clemson player back to his side of the field. Mayfield smiled and shouted, “Ahhhhhaha!”
The Tigers have built a team that can back up their talk. Thursday night, Watson took the final snap and, in order to run off the final seconds, heaved the football into the steamy South Florida night. The Tigers bounded off their sideline, a new kind of Clemsoning. The old definition had been erased, perhaps for good.
“I hope so,” Guillermo said. “It can officially be retired if we go win this next week.”