Carlos Watkins was exhausted, his uniform drenched in rain and four quarters worth of perspiration. A New Year’s Eve engagement in the Capital One Orange Bowl with Oklahoma — with a national title bid at stake — was so far distant it didn’t occupy one brain cell of his thought.
All he could think of was stopping Notre Dame.
And then, with one massive surge, the defensive lineman willed his tired 300-pound body to preserve the win — and, in effect, Clemson’s season — by stopping Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer 2 yards short of the end zone and a game-tying two-point conversion.
“We definitely wouldn’t be here if we had lost,” Watkins said of his defensive stand in October.
No, Clemson wouldn’t.
And either would Oklahoma had the Sooners not stymied a similar two-point conversion last month in a white-knuckle win over TCU.
“It’s kind of scary that it’s such a fragile thing,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said of one play turning points that, had they resulted differently, would have left both teams out of the national championship picture.
No. 1 Clemson, the nation’s only unbeaten team at 13-0, will face Oklahoma at Sun Life Stadium in the first of two College Football Playoff semifinals Thursday. In the other, No. 2 Alabama takes on No. 3 Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, with the two winners bound for a Jan. 11 desert showdown in Glendale, Arizona, for the national title.
The Tigers and No. 4 Sooners are familiar foes in familiar surroundings.
Fresh in memory was their meeting almost a year ago to the day in the Russell Athletic Bowl, when Clemson pounded the Sooners to the tune of a 40-6 victory.
The Sooners are using that defeat as motivation.
As for Miami, consider this: Clemson won its only national championship in the 1982 Orange Bowl. This season, the Tigers recorded their most lopsided win at Sun Life Stadium in a 58-0 blowout over the University of Miami.
Oklahoma (11-1) is no stranger to South Florida, either.
The Sooners have captured five of their seven national titles with wins in the Orange Bowl, the last of those coming in 2001 when they knocked off Florida State.
To reach this point, though, both teams had to survive shaky moments.
For Clemson, it came on Oct. 3 when it barely held off Notre Dame in Death Valley. After the Irish rallied in the fourth quarter to turn a 21-3 Clemson lead into a tense, 24-22 cliffhanger, Notre Dame went for two to tie the score with seven seconds left.
Watkins snuffed out the comeback.
“It happened fast,” Watkins said. “I actually took a bad step on that play. I stepped inside, and it kind of threw me out of position. But I got back, rolled my guard, and the quarterback ended up coming to me.”
Watkins brought him down, short of the goal line.
“Once we made that play, it was like a lot of relief off our shoulders,” Watkins said. “It was a big play in the season.”
It might have saved Clemson’s season.
Oklahoma survived its own scare. Having already lost to Texas, the Sooners could not afford another loss or any shot it had of reaching the playoffs would have been lost.
But they were nearly pushed to that point in a Nov. 21 matchup with TCU. The Horned Frogs scored with 51 seconds remaining to leave the Sooners with a one-point lead. TCU went for two, and the win.
Sooners safety Steven Parker saved the day for Oklahoma.
“I saw the quarterback rolling out, like he had a clear lane for a touchdown,” Parker said.
So Parker left the man he was covering and made a beeline for the passer.
“It was do or die,” Parker said. “I had to come up from covering my guy. By leaving him, I’m taking a big gamble. But I’m also taking a big gamble if I don’t leave my man.”
Parker leaped in the air and batted down the pass.
Oklahoma and Clemson aren’t alone in their escape acts among this year’s playoff participants. Michigan State stunned Michigan on a wild fumble by the punter that was returned for a touchdown as time expired.
“You have to have some luck,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables acknowledged. “That’s all part of it to get here. We’ve had our moments to say the least. We found ways to win. Sometimes it’s just the power of belief.”