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Clemson takes step towards renewed relevance / January 06, 2014

The Atlantic Coast Conference faces an important task tonight, when no. 1 Florida State and no. 2 Auburn settle the BCS national championship in Pasadena, Calif. Clemson, meanwhile, already has brought considerable national respect to the ACC with its gut-check 40-35 survival test against Ohio State in Friday’s Orange Bowl.

The no. 12 Tigers, who finish 11-2, appear to be a lock for a final Top Ten finish. If FSU can withstand Auburn’s powerful running attack, the conference will have accomplished its most significant goals of the postseason.

The ACC is a mediocre 4-6 in postseason play, but what most sports fans will remember are the high profile games, and Clemson’s ability to withstand a punishing effort from the Buckeyes, and still prevail.

Make no mistake, this was tough-man football, with plenty of physicality on both sides. As expected, the respective offensive units gobbled up yardage, with Clemson ramming through an injury and suspension-depleted OSU defense for 576 yards on 76 snaps. OSU all but matched the Tigers, going for 427 on 72 snaps.

There were lights out performers on both sides. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd capped his Tiger career by throwing for 378 yards and five touchdowns, finishing 31-for-40 with two picks. He was sacked twice. Boyd also ran for 127 yards with one touchdown.

Boyd collected his 32nd win, tying the school record for wins in a career for a starting quarterback. He also recorded his eighth win over a top 25 team, a school record. Boyd also had his 18th career 300-yard game, tying the ACC mark for 300 yard games in a career. He holds the record with current San Diego Charger Philip Rivers, who also had 18 for N.C. State from 2000-03.

Boyd also capped a collegiate career with an ACC record 107 touchdown passes and 133 touchdowns rushing and passing, also a conference record.

Boyd had some forgettable moments, especially the very sloppy flip pass interception picked off by OSU freshman Vonn Bell that shut down Clemson’s first drive of the second quarter. And Boyd’s last pass in college was picked off by OSU safety C.J. Barnett, giving the Buckeyes (12-2) one final gasp of hope.

Unlike the losses to FSU and South Carolina, Clemson’s turnovers did not prove to be game-changers, as OSU could not capitalize on either of Boyd’s picks. That was a major difference, although OSU was certainly depleted by the loss of its best defender, corner Bradley Roby, and the suspension that kept Noah Spence out of the lineup.

But OSU quarterback Braxton Miller, certainly not 100 percent physically at the end, followed two snaps later with an off-target throw to Tiger middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, who became an instant Clemson legend by redeeming Boyd and ending OSU’s comeback hopes.

Clemson has now beaten two of college football’s most significant programs - LSU and Ohio State - back-to-back. The Tigers have 11 wins for the second consecutive year, which has never happened before.

Clemson is the only team in the country to beat a top ten team in a bowl game each of the last two years.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney also has a BCS win in his pocket, as that format ends and college football moves on to the playoff system.

Clemson also wiped out most of the disappointment from the loss to FSU and the bitter season-ending smackdown delivered by South Carolina. But the Gamecocks will finish in the Top Ten and FSU has the national title within its grasp. Short of a trip to Pasadena, Clemson has accomplished plenty this season and Swinney has emerged in line to carve a legendary resume at Death Valley.

Clemson has certainly represented the ACC well the last two seasons. The Tigers also washed away the nightmarish memory of their last trip to the Orange Bowl two years ago, when West Virginia routed the Tigers. Clemson is 22-4 since that night and now has its first BCS win.

Swinney said the OSU victory “means we’re one step closer to our goal, which is to be the best in the country. Ohio State, what a great football team. We knew it was going to be an incredibly hard fought game. Our goal was to get to the fourth quarter. We felt like, if we could get it to the fourth quarter and have the lead or be close, then we could win it.

“You don’t luck up and get to BCS games. You earn your way there. And you don’t luck up and win them. You’ve got to earn it on the field.”

OSU, which took its last lead with a 14-yard scoring pass from Miller to Carlos Hyde with 11:35 in the final period, also played big boy football and certainly represented the Big Ten well. But OSU, which had a late shot at the national title, has to deal with a loss to Michigan State in a defensive-minded Big Ten title game, followed by this near-miss in the Orange Bowl.

Both teams had remarkable performances.

Clemson put on a show with its high-flying aerial attack, as Bowl Most Outstanding Player winner Sammy Watkins (16 catches, 227 yards and two touchdowns) and fellow wideout Martavis Bryant (three catches, 28 yards, two touchdowns) staged their own competition to record the night’s most high-voltage catches.

Boyd, putting the cap on a storied Clemson career, said, “It’s a very special, very special evening. I couldn’t pick a better way to go out as a senior. And these guys right here, these are the guys I play for. When we step on the field, we give it everything we’ve got. Not for everybody else, but for these guys beside us. What a special way to go out.”

Boyd said Clemson is now a “driven team who knows how to win games in a clutch, and what we give ourselves a chance ... we go out there and do what’s necessary.”

Watkins said, “We had 33 days to prepare for this team. 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. I think, overall, we probably played the best game we could have played - minus the turnovers we had. “Tajh played one of the best games, and the offensive line played great, and the wide receivers made plays and the running backs did also.”

Watkins and Bryant, showed the value of athleticism in a spectacular back-to-back air show. OSU could not match the airborne athleticism of Watkins, Bryant and company.

Clemson also capitalized on Boyd’s rushing ability, as he had a career high. Swinney cracked, “not bad for a fat boy.

“We were going to put the ball in no. 10’s hands, and we felt like that was going to be a key. This was the seventh best team in the country against the rush, so we felt like this was our best chance to run the football, mixed in with the hot rod ... And then take what’s there in the passing game. They gave us a lot of soft coverage against Sammy, and we were just trying to take advantage of what’s there.”

Clemson also capitalized on a punt return by the Buckeyes’ Corey Brown that set up an acrobatic 30-yard touchdown catch by Watkins from Boyd.

“The spark to me was the punt return fumble. We were down,” said Swinney. “We were minus one in the turnover margin, and that’s a huge thing ... When we win the turnover margin, we win.

“That (recovery) was a huge, huge play because that evened us up, and we went on and capitalized from that. That was the spark we needed,” said Swinney.

Clemson also held a potent OSU offense to two of 13 on third down conversions, while ultimately winning the turnover margin.

Clemson now has a major building block on its collective resume, and should continue to be strong. While the Tigers certainly lose some high-profile performers - Watkins is a junior but appears to be poised to make the jump to the NFL - Clemson football should be very relevant next year, especially with most of the defense returning.

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