GLENDALE, Ariz. — This soaring football era at Clemson, the 22,000-strong university in northwest South Carolina, reached a stage of outright mastery on Saturday night in the American desert. Where for years Clemson meant something better than average but shy of great, now even an empire like Ohio State looked overmatched and flummoxed in the orange wave of expertise.
In shooing the Buckeyes, 31-0, in a Fiesta Bowl national semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium, Clemson showed polish collected partly last year when it rose to become a commended national runner-up in this very building. It showed uncommon skill along its rowdy defensive line, at tackling across the board, at receiver especially with Mike Williams and, of course, at quarterback where junior Deshaun Watson provided both management and bedazzlement.
Mostly, though, as the Tigers played before 71,279 that seemed about two-thirds behind the Buckeyes, they showed they belonged in a College Football Playoff National Championship Game rematch set for Jan. 9 in Tampa. There, the Tigers (13-1) will get another chance at Alabama (14-0), whose 45-40 win last January came with its share of complications. There, the idea of Clemson could take on its freshest shine yet.
There, just by its presence, Clemson will uphold Coach Dabo Swinney’s remarks of Saturday night when he beheld the new and steep evidence of 31-0 and said, “We have a culture, a winning foundation that breeds consistency,” and, “I definitely think the narrative has changed with our program.”
And there, the Alabama offense and freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts will aim to solve a defensive line that just about devoured Ohio State and its seasoned junior quarterback, J.T. Barrett. This line brimmed with such unanimous horror that Dexter Lawrence, the 340-pound freshman marvel, yielded the publicity to freshman end Clelin Ferrell and senior tackle Carlos Watkins, both of whom got sacks that looked painful, Watkins getting two.
“It surprised me, honestly,” Watkins said of the shutout.
Early on, when both an interception and then a brief march put the Buckeyes in Clemson territory, Ferrell treated Barrett and running back Curtis Samuel to pivotal losses of six and eight yards. Each led to field-goal attempts, which Ohio State senior first-year place kicker Tyler Durbin missed, from 47 yards wide right and 47 yards barely wide left above the upright. “It’s kind of crazy,” Ferrell said, “that I get to come out here and perform at a high level.”
By halftime, Ohio State had 88 toothless total yards.
By the end, it had a sullen 215.
It fell to 11-2 in a season after it sent 12 draft picks to the NFL, and its three-time national champion coach, Urban Meyer, fell to 10-3 in bowl games, with two of those losses in the past four seasons to an ascendant Clemson and Swinney, and with this loss by far the most thorough and shocking. In 15 decorated coaching seasons at four universities with 193 games and 165 wins, Meyer had never been shut out.
“Ohio State’s not used to this, I’m not used to this, and we will not get used to this,” he said. He promised to repair a feckless passing game when he said, “We will become a good passing team. Next year.”
For this year, though, the happy Clemson players at their lockers repeatedly told of the keen preparation, as from “Coach V,” as they put it to name defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Said linebacker Ben Boulware, “We were on top of our p’s and q’s probably for the past week, just on top of everything, kind of knew what to expect, what they were gonna throw at us, so I’m really not surprised, just because I know how well we prepared.”
All through the night, Watson looked like somebody who had solved this level of the sport, even with his two interceptions, one owing to a fallen receiver and the other to a remarkable long run to the long ball by safety Malik Hooker. The quarterback who so addled Alabama last year made off on a highlight-reel, 33-yard run in the second quarter. He rushed for 57 meaningful yards and two touchdowns. He passed for left and right and short and long for 259, winning the ballyhooed battle with the secondary of a team that allowed only four previous opponents to surpass 200 and nobody else past 258. He even got to join running back Wayne Gallman in making the “sleep” sign after Gallman’s seven-yard touchdown run made it 31-0 and paved the outcome the cement. That was a scene unexpected.
“You’re bound to make mistakes,” Watson said of the early interceptions that weren’t necessarily mistakes. “We’re all human beings.”
“That’s why he’s the best player in the country,” Swinney said of the Heisman Trophy runner-up. “He’s a winner. He’s 31-3, and he’s hard to beat.”
He directed a drive of appealing variety for a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter, and it covered 70 yards in 10 plays. It included a 26-yard loft up the right side to the nationally outstanding Williams, who went up in a big-time manner to haul it in beside cornerback Denzel Ward. Watson hit three receivers, including Hunter Renfrow twice. He faked handoffs so expertly that the touchdown, his 1-yard run, featured a large pile of muscular humanity in the middle while the quarterback skirted around to the left unscathed.
He couldn’t always find the way against a highbrow defense gamely trying to uphold its entire team, but he knew how to find the way more than enough. After a brief interlude of punts and Hooker’s interception and little general consequence, Watson wreaked the 33-yard play that could survive the game and know a robust internet shelf life.
From the Clemson 34-yard line, he began to the left, got wide, streamed up the field about 10 yards, then veered right, making fakes and moves along the way, all the way to the right sideline, to which he breezed out of bounds without taking even the first bruise. One penalty and two plays later, from the Ohio State 30-yard line, Watson faked to C.J. Fuller, a running back with only 45 rushing attempts and four receptions in Clemson’s first 13 games.
Fuller released from the backfield, hurried up the left side of the field, got past the torrid Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker and made the catch in the end zone even as Baker caught up and crashed into him. It added Fuller’s high-difficulty catch to Williams’ collection of same — he caught six for 96 yards — and it revealed that in every area of football, Clemson looked tiptop. When Watson soon told of “doing it the Clemson way,” everyone knew what he meant.