MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — No. 1 Clemson rose to prominence this season largely behind its offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. The Orange Bowl between the Tigers and No. 4 Oklahoma featured the best two quarterbacks in college football — Watson and Baker Mayfield — but the Tigers’ defense essentially ended the comparison.
The Tigers swarmed the Sooners’ running backs, sacked Mayfield five times and delivered punishing hits to whichever unfortunate Sooner was carrying the ball.
Clemson (14-0) held Oklahoma (11-2) scoreless in the second half, which allowed its offense to hit its stride, sealing a 37-17 win Thursday in a College Football Playoff semifinal and clinching a spot in the national title game on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona.
“Four straight years we go into our bowl game as the underdog,” said Brent Venables, the Clemson defensive coordinator, his voice hoarse from yelling on the sideline. “Nobody believes that we have the workhorses to do it. Tonight we silenced our critics. We really showed up when we had to.”
Tension had been building between the players leading up to the game. Each team felt as if it had been disrespected. Clemson, despite its perfect record, was the betting underdog. Oklahoma was still smarting from a 40-6 thrashing by Clemson in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl.
Mayfield spoke openly about wanting to exact revenge. At an Orange Bowl luncheon on Wednesday, players exchanged heated words. On Thursday during warm-ups, while Mayfield hopped around the field, Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander came over and chirped something in his ear. Mayfield smiled, patted Alexander on the shoulder and walked away. But Alexander followed him and continued to chirp, his demeanor becoming increasingly unfriendly.
Finally, an Oklahoma staff member stepped between the two, directing Alexander back to his side of the field, where Alexander continued shouting at Mayfield.
“I don’t really talk trash; I speak facts,” Alexander said. “I told him: ‘You’re going to have to sit in that pocket and throw that ball. We going to see how you are, OK?’ That’s all that was.”
In the first half, at least, Mayfield showed why he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. He led Oklahoma to a touchdown on its opening drive — surpassing its point total from last year’s bowl game in fewer than four minutes. He later threw a 42-yard bomb to Dede Westbrook, part of a 76-yard touchdown drive that lasted only 43 seconds and gave Oklahoma a 17-16 halftime lead.
Early in the second half, though, the Tigers’ talented front four took control of the line of scrimmage. On one run up the middle, D.J. Reader, Clemson’s 325-pound tackle, slammed down running back Samaje Perine and landed on his left ankle. Then Reader crunched Perine’s backup, Joe Mixon, too.
Mayfield, a walk-on at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma, where he won the job after starting as a walk-on, finished 26 of 41 for 311 passing yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
But once Perine and Mixon were injured, the Sooners became one-dimensional, and Clemson forced Mayfield into throwing two second-half interceptions. The crowd, which was mostly a sea of orange, roared whenever the Tigers caught Mayfield from behind as he tried to make a play.
“That’s what we wanted to do, rattle Baker Mayfield,” said Shaq Lawson, the Tigers’ all-American defensive lineman who missed most of the game after suffering an early knee injury. (Lawson vowed he would play in the title game.)
Watson (16 of 31 for 187 yards) had his own struggles early on but did not look rattled. In the first half, ill-timed decisions and poor play calling in the red zone kept the Tigers from pulling away. They settled for three field goals, and Watson threw an interception in the end zone. They scored their lone touchdown thanks to a 31-yard fake-punt pass to their backup defensive tackle, Christian Wilkins.
Once the Clemson defense started exacting its will, so did the Clemson rushing attack. Watson and Wayne Gallman, the Tigers’ top running back, hit their stride in the second half, finishing with 295 combined rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on 50 carries.
On both sides of the ball, Clemson dominated the line of scrimmage. In the fourth quarter, when the Sooners trailed by 20 points, Perine took another handoff up the middle, where Carlos Watkins, another 300-pound defensive tackle, dragged Perine down and landed awkwardly on his left ankle. Perine got up, tried putting weight on his left foot, and went to the ground, kneeling there, leaning over, his head on the grass.
Even had his ankle not been in pain, Perine would surely have needed that time to summon the courage and strength to take another handoff into the heart of the Clemson defense.
In the waning moments of the game, TV cameras caught Clemson defenders starting their celebration on the sideline. “We’re No. 1 for a reason!” said T.J. Green, the Tigers’ free safety.
“You can’t doubt that!” Alexander said, smiling wide. “You can’t doubt that!”