Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Clemson Tigers turn disrespect into an orange storm

Clemson players celebrating after defeating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on Thursday, December 31, 2015.
Clemson players celebrating after defeating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on Thursday, December 31, 2015.

They demolished the namesake stadium almost eight years ago, but Thursday’s 82nd edition of the game might just have been the orange-est Orange Bowl of them all.

Clemson first won the crowd — its orange-shirted fans accounting for at least three-quarters of a sold-out Dolphins stadium.

And then Clemson won the game, not quite as lopsidedly, but oh so impressively.

The Tigers’ 37-17 New Year’s Eve victory over the Oklahoma Sooners in a College Football Playoff semifinal was an upset, officially, technically, and if you insist. But if so, count the Tigers among the unlikeliest and most egregiously miscast underdogs in sports history.

They were ranked No. 1 and a perfect 13-0 coming into this game, yet the Tigers were four-point betting underdogs to No. 4 Oklahoma (11-2). Clemson coach Dabo Swinney needed write no magical motivational speech. The oddsmakers wrote it for him.

“How ’bout them Tigers, baby!” Swinney shouted into the post game bedlam of celebrating fans.

Before the game he had told his team, “You ain’t favored to win the damn game, but we ain’t no underdog! Nobody believes in this team except these guys.”

Las Vegas and media experts alike all underestimated and disrespected the representative from the lighter-weight Atlantic Coast Conference, believing it inferior to the Big 12 that sent Oklahoma.

Well, later, Sooners.

It was Clemson that played big as Goliath but had the slingshot, too.

Now it’s the unbeaten, top-ranked Tigers heading to the second CFP championship game on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona, the Tigers’ first shot at a national title in 34 years. And Clemson likely will be an underdog yet again against No. 2 Alabama, who defeated No. 3 Michigan State 38-0 in Thursday’s later CFP semifinal in the Cotton Bowl.

Miami Hurricanes fans might take a smidgen of solace that their 58-0 October loss to Clemson on this same field, the game that got Al Golden fired, at least was to a national power, not just an ACC king.

Thursday won’t convince everyone the ACC now enjoys the heft of the Big 12, but it should leave zero doubt Clemson was better than favored OU.

The Tigers impressed more than the Sooners disappointed, though not so much in the first half.

Clemson trailed 17-16 at the half in a taut, teetering game, its only touchdown set up by a trick play in which punter Andy Teasdall floated a 31-yard completion to 330-pound defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

“We shocked ’em, didn’t we?” Swinney said. “Nobody covering that big ol’ guy!”

Teasdall infamously failed on a freelanced fake punt in the ACC title game, earning a blistering sideline tirade from Swinney that nearly melted his facemask. This gamble kept Clemson in the game, after which no trickery was required.

In the second half the Tigers treated the game like a personal piñata, busting it open as the partisan crowd howled in delight, needing not wait until midnight to celebrate.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, named the Orange Bowl’s offensive MVP, passed for 187 yards, rushed for 145 more and threw and ran for two touchdowns.

The Tigers rolled to 312 net yards rushing and held Oklahoma to only 67.

“Their ability to run the football and our inability to run it — they played a more physical way then we did,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said.

Defense clearly stamped this victory. Embossed it. Sealed it.

Mighty Oklahoma had averaged scoring 52 points in its previous seven games.

Clemson allowed OU zero in Thursday’s second half, when the game swung.

The Tigers had two interceptions — one by defensive MVP Ben Boulware — and forced six Sooners punts. The defense had a huge fourth-down stop as Oklahoma, down 23-17, threatened to regain the lead. OU’s next possession ended in an interception.

Every time the Sooners sought to assert themselves, the Tigers stood bigger and taller. And roared.

Miami and South Florida have been the stage for bigger football games than this first one hosting a CFP semifinal. Yes. Twenty times the college national champion has been crowned here. Ten times Miami has hosted a Super Bowl.

Clemson’s performance, though, as an underdog, no less, will rank as memorable and worthy of the stage and the pantheon.

It was a storm of orange that swarmed this 82nd Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

It started in the crowd.

It ended — emphatically — on the field.

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