One by one they reached into the glass bowl resting atop the Orange Bowl trophy and began flinging oranges toward the thousands of Tigers fans who stuck around for the celebration at Sun Life Stadium on Friday night.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, flanked by star receiver Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd, the winningest quarterback in school history, didn’t want the Tigers’ triumphant moment to end after beating Ohio State 40-35.
After all, this Orange Bowl win — the Tigers’ first Bowl Championship Series victory — was among the first goals Swinney set out to accomplish when he took over for Tommy Bowden in 2008.
“Five years ago I signed 12 guys, and I didn’t have really much of a résumé as a head coach,” Swinney told reporters in the early morning hours Saturday.
“It wasn’t really sexy to come to Clemson. But we had a plan, a vision, a hope and a belief, and these guys believed starting with this guy right here, Tajh Boyd. I sat [at] his kitchen table in Virginia … and I said, ‘Tajh, here’s the plan. If you’ll believe in me, we’ll change Clemson. We’ll change it.’ ”
Friday’s Orange Bowl victory sends a different message out about Clemson, a program which for years has won but has teetered on the edge of really being considered elite.
By beating an Urban Meyer-coached team that had gone 24-1 since he took over, the Tigers notched their third victory over a top-10 team in their past 14 games (Georgia and LSU being the others). Clemson also clinched back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history. Boyd and the rest of the senior class won 38 games, the most by any Tigers group since 1991.
“We didn’t quite get to the top of the mountain like we wanted, but we can see it,” Swinney said.
Swinney also took extra joy in pointing out afterward that Clemson was “the first team from the state of South Carolina to win a BCS game.”
That was essentially payback for Steve Spurrier’s comments about “winning the state championship” following South Carolina’s Capital One Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Boyd, who set all kinds of ACC records for passing, “set a standard for every quarterback to come through Clemson,” Swinney said.
He completed 31 of 40 passes and accounted for 505 total yards of offense Friday — the second-most all-time to Florida’s Tim Tebow in a BCS game.
“Whoever drafts Tajh Boyd, he’s going to be awesome for them, and he’s going to be all in,” Swinney said. “He’ll change the community, change the team, and he will continue to win because that’s the greatest characteristic he has. The guy wins.”
The question now becomes how much will Clemson win without Boyd and several key pieces to its recent run. On paper, there are only four senior starters on offense and three on defense who will be leaving the program. But Boyd, leading rusher Roderick McDowell, left tackle Brandon Thomas and linebacker Spencer Shuey are among them.
Plus, it’s likely that Watkins, receiver Martavis Bryant and defensive end Vic Beasley, who led the team in sacks, could depart early for the NFL Draft. Watkins is expected to be a first-round pick. Beasley was told by the NFL that he would likely be a second-rounder.
“Clemson will always be my university,” Beasley told reporters after Friday’s victory.
The Buckeyes and Tigers combined for 1,003 yards, falling 29 yards shy of the Orange Bowl record of 1,032 yards, set by Clemson and West Virginia in 2012.
Big plays were abundant, too. The teams combined for five scores of 30 yards or more, tying the Orange Bowl record set by Alabama and Syracuse in the first Orange Bowl game televised in 1953.
It was also the first time in Ohio State history that it scored 35 points and lost.