Orange Bowl

Clemson defense dominates in Orange Bowl despite losing Shaq Lawson

Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson (90) warms up before the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against the Oklahoma, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson (90) warms up before the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against the Oklahoma, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. AP

Shaq Lawson made the first big play of Thursday’s Capital One Orange Bowl for the Clemson defense.

Unfortunately, his on-field contributions were limited to that first-quarter sack of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Lawson sustained a sprained MCL in his left knee on the second play of the game. Lawson said he then aggravated the injury on the sack. He left the game at that point and did not return.

Clemson found a way to persevere without its All-American defensive end as it contained Oklahoma’s potent offense in a 37-17 victory at Sun Life Stadium.

“I really don’t remember [how it happened],” Lawson said. “I felt my knee buckle a little bit and that’s how everything went down. I don’t think it’s too serious. I’ll be ready to play our next game.”

Lawson said he would have an MRI to determine the extent of the injury.

Even if Lawson is ruled out when Clemson plays for the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona, the Tigers have good reason not to fear.

Clemson held Oklahoma to 67 yards rushing — far below the 235 yards per game the Sooners averaged entering the Orange Bowl. Much of that came on the Sooners’ opening touchdown drive when Samaje Perine ran for 33 yards on five carries, including a 1-yard score.

The Tigers sacked Mayfield four more times and forced him to throw two interceptions. The Sooners’ 17 points matched their season low, which came in their only other loss, against Texas on Oct. 10. Oklahoma was averaging 45.8 points per game before the Orange Bowl.

Lawson, who already has declared for the NFL Draft, entered the game with 54 tackles and  9 1/2 sacks. He had been part of a Clemson defense that exceeded expectations this season after losing its entire front seven from last season, including top 10 NFL draft pick Vic Beasley.

Lawson was seen with an ice bag on his left knee during the game. When he initially left the game, several teammates came to console their fiery defensive leader. After the game, Lawson was all smiles as he celebrated with them on the field.

“I’m happy,” Lawson said. “This is what I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little kid. This is a very exciting moment for us. This feels great. That’s what we’ve all been working hard for, an opportunity like this.”

Defensive end Kevin Dodd (four tackles, 3 1/2 for loss, one sack) picked up the slack and true freshman Austin Bryant filled in admirably at Lawson’s position.

Bryant had played in 11 games before the Orange Bowl and totaled 17 tackles (10 solo) with one sack and a fumble recovery. Bryant had four tackles (two solo) and a half-sack.

And he made a huge play on a key fourth-down stop that helped Clemson start to seal the outcome.

Bryant surged through the line and delivered the initial hit on Perine on fourth-and-1 from the Clemson 30, allowing linebacker Kendall Joseph to stop him for no gain and a turnover on downs.

Clemson took the ball 70 yards on the ensuing possession and extended its lead to 30-17 on Deshaun Watson’s touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow. The Tigers had all the momentum from that point on.

“It’s hard to hold back the tears,” Bryant said. “Summer workouts, camps, games — it’s hard to put into words. We have a next-man-up mentality. Coach preaches that every day. One man goes out, the next steps up and takes his place. My teammates had faith in me to go in there and take Shaq’s place.”

Lawson had reportedly been involved in a verbal altercation with Oklahoma players following the Orange Bowl luncheon Wednesday. Reports online said Lawson had boarded Oklahoma’s team bus and began talking smack to their players.

Lawson said there was as a lot of talking between players on both teams, but denied ever boarding the Oklahoma team bus.

“That false story came out saying I got on their bus, and that’s not true,” Lawson said. “They got on us and started talking trash and they started taking their shirts off and all that. That’s all that happened.”

When asked following the game, Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper also said Lawson never boarded their bus.

“That man didn’t get on our bus, and we just talked to each other,” he said. “But there’s no truth to that [bus report].”

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