Clemson’s fickle Orange Bowl history includes memories both euphoric and horrific. And with a dynamic performance from start to finish, using his arm, feet and bravado, Tajh Boyd and his fellow speedsters on offense were able to put Friday night’s 80th edition at Sun Life Stadium in the category of games to cherish.
The senior and Tigers’ unquestioned team leader got his team into the end zone just 130 seconds into the game on a personal-long 48-yard touchdown run up the middle. He was untouched. Right away, Ohio State’s defense was on notice that it might be a long night.
Clemson kept getting in its own way, but the Tigers’ offensive firepower made up for their frequent mistakes.
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In a dual of dazzling quarterbacks with the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller, Boyd and his resilient band of weapons ultimately won out, as Clemson outlasted Ohio State 40-35 in a back-and-forth thrill fest before over 72,000 fans.
Clemson captured the national championship in the 1982 Orange Bowl just down the road from this stadium, but just two years ago it gave up 70 points in an embarrassing loss to West Virginia at Sun Life Stadium. The Tigers knew they couldn’t duplicate the magic of the championship victory. They just didn’t want to duplicate the nightmare of 2012.
“We had enough mistakes to probably lose it, some critical errors, but our guys showed a lot of heart, and they got it done,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said.
After Miller immediately answered Boyd’s opening theatrics with a 33-yard TD burst of his own down the left sideline, Boyd answered right back, and quickly. In 48 seconds to be exact. He capped a four-play, 75-yard drive with a way-too-easy 34-yard touchdown pass down the middle to his favorite target, junior Sammy Watkins, a South Fort Myers High product who had a team-high 85 catches for 1,237 yards and 10 TDs coming into the Orange Bowl.
It took exactly two possessions for Boyd to put his scintillating stamp on the contest. And in the final game of a record-setting career, he was just getting started.
But Boyd and his speed-burners on offense weren’t always at their best or smartest. Boyd was called for an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone with 2:25 left in the first quarter that resulted in an Ohio State safety and temporarily halted Clemson’s momentum. Boyd also turned a potential touchdown run into an interception with 11:05 left in the second quarter and the Tigers (11-2) poised to take a double-digit lead, trying a flip toss amid a cluster of Buckeyes defenders that was intercepted at the Ohio State 5-yard line.
The Tigers’ defense bailed Boyd out though, getting the Buckeyes (12-2) off the field on a three-and-out and giving the 6-1, 225-pound signal-caller a chance to redeem himself.
And, again, he did things quickly, leading a seven-play, 77-yard drive that took just 2:35. Boyd’s pass to Martavis Bryant on third-and-6 got the Tigers to the Buckeyes’ 22-yard line. Boyd then gashed Ohio State with a 15-yard run up the middle to the 7-yard line. This time, there was no flip-throw blunder to ruin the drive, only a perfectly thrown, 3-yard fade pass to the back-left corner of the end zone, again to Bryant, which gave Clemson a 20-9 lead with 6:16 left in the first half.
But the cushion was short-lived, as the Buckeyes shredded the Tigers’ defense for two touchdowns late in the second quarter, the second coming after Clemson failed to convert on fourth-and-5 at the Ohio State 36-yard line. The Buckeyes made the Tigers pay, with Miller scoring on a 3-yard keeper with 12 seconds left for a 22-20 lead.
Suddenly and stunningly, Clemson was behind as the halftime show played out despite Boyd’s gaudy stats and the Tigers outgaining the Buckeyes 362-254. Boyd went 17 of 21 for 235 yards with two touchdown passes to go with 73 yards on the ground and the one TD run in a high-flying first half.
“It’s about us going out there and executing our game plan,” Boyd said. “We can go against no defense. We can go against air. But if we don’t execute what we’re doing, it’s not going to work.”
The teams’ 42 combined points were the fourth-highest scoring first half in Orange Bowl history, with the highest-scoring first half coming two years ago in the Tigers’ forgettable loss.
Boyd wasn’t the only Tiger putting up big numbers by halftime. Watkins already had 130 yards receiving on eight catches, and tailback Roderick McDowell was almost halfway to an 100-yard night with 48 yards on just eight carries. But Clemson had already piled up 80 yards in penalties by halftime, a reason the Tigers were winning on the stat sheet but not on the scoreboard.
After Ohio State opened the second half with a long touchdown drive, the Tigers looked down and out. But a muffed punt by the Buckeyes set the Tigers up in great field position, and the Boyd-to-Watkins show was on stage again. Boyd found his favorite target with a beautiful toss down the right sideline, with Watkins outleaping the defender for a 30-yard TD catch to bring Clemson within 29-27.
Then Boyd got another short field after the Tigers intercepted Miller. It was showtime yet again. Boyd hit Watkins for 14 yards. On the next play, Boyd gained 15 yards with a run down the middle. And once again, Boyd found Bryant in the same back-left corner of the end zone, again from 3 yards, with Bryant hauling in a deflection as he got the necessary one foot in bounds.
“Well, he’s the winningest quarterback in the history of the school, did it in three years,” Swinney said. “He set the standard for every quarterback to come through at Clemson.”
Clemson had gotten the lead back by the end of the third quarter, at 34-29, just as quickly as they had given it away late in the first half. And by the end of the third, Watkins had broken an Orange Bowl single-game record with 200 yards receiving and Boyd had the 18th 300-yard passing game of his career.
Watkins was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, finishing with 16 catches for 227 yards and the two touchdowns. Watkins was the first wide receiver to win MVP of the Orange Bowl since Florida’s Taylor Jacobs won it in 2002. Watkins’ 227 yards was also the second-best mark in any BCS bowl.
“We had 33 days to prepare for this team,” Watkins said. “We knew what we could do and can’t do. I think Tajh and the offense did a great job with giving us the ball and giving ourselves a chance to make plays. For the offense, I think, overall, we played probably the best game we could have played minus the turnovers that we had.”
The Buckeyes — of course — answered again on a Carlos Hyde touchdown catch to give the Buckeyes the lead back at 35-34.
But Boyd led a 13-play, 75-yard drive, his final moments of collegiate greatness, capping the march on third-and-goal with a 5-yard TD misdirection toss to Stanton Seckinger.
Boyd finished 31 of 40 for 378 yards passing and added 127 yards on the ground on 20 carries. His 505 yards of total offense were the second-most in a BCS game, trailing only Tim Tebow’s 533 yards in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. He also had the second-most passing yards in Orange Bowl history, ironically behind only former Miramar High star Geno Smith, who torched the Clemson defense for 407 yards in the Tigers’ loss to West Virginia two years ago.
“Obviously, it’s a disappointing and disheartening loss, but it’s something you’ll never forget,” said Boyd about the 2012 game.
The Tigers defense, gashed for most of the night, took care of the rest, ending the Buckeyes’ ensuing drive with a turnover on a sack of Miller with 3:12 left. After Boyd threw another interception with 1:27 left, his defense needed one more stop and got it on Stephone Anthony’s interception.
At last, Boyd and the Tigers had their lasting, winning memory.
“You know, this is a very special night,” Boyd said. “I couldn’t pick a better way to go out as a senior.”