(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in Clemson Athletics History’ countdown. Starting Tuesday, April 14 we will be revealing portions of the list daily on WSPA Channel 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Tigers history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with former Clemson Sports Information Director and longtime color analyst Tim Bourret, who’s still heard on their radio network and works with the Clemson sports department covering Tigers Golf.
#1 2016 Football National Title
After a 35-year championship drought, Clemson football solidified its place among the greatest teams in college football history. With a thrilling win in the closing seconds, the Tigers engineered the most compelling finish in College Football Playoff championship game history to date. In a season in which they defeated the number one team in the country, the Tigers created the foundation for what is now a dynasty under head coach Dabo Swinney.
The Season (2016-17)
After Swinney took over as head coach of the Tigers in the middle of the 2008 season, he created a consistent, winning culture in Death Valley. From 2011-2014, Clemson won at least 10 games in each season, including three bowl victories. In 2015, the program exploded with a 14-1 season, the only loss coming with a championship game loss to powerhouse Alabama, 45-40. But Clemson had found its star quarterback, as Deshaun Watson emerged as one of the best in the nation after recording over 4,100 passing yards and 35 touchdowns.
And while the outlook was very bright for a return to the title game in 2016, the Tigers faced a very difficult road to the top.
Following the championship game loss to end the 2015 season, Clemson entered the 2016 season as the number two team in the nation. And the Tigers had an incredibly taxing schedule.
They opened with a road game at Auburn. Although unranked at the time, Auburn gave Clemson a run for its money, taking the game down to the wire. Clemson escaped defeat, narrowly winning, 19-13.
The next week they got all they could handle from Troy, a non-Power Five program that came into Death Valley looking to play spoiler early in the season. It was a sloppy first half, and Troy went into the break with a 13-10 lead. But Clemson fended off the Trojans late, winning 30-24 and improving to 2-0.
Clemson returned to dominant form in week three, defeating SC State, 59-0, and then beating Georgia Tech 26-7 the following week. But a tough stretch came in October.
The now fifth-ranked Tigers faced number three Louisville on October 1. It was Deshaun Watson versus electrifying Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson, in perhaps the greatest QB showdown to ever take place in Death Valley or college football game, for that matter. As expected, it was an offensive shootout. Jackson recorded 162 yards on the ground to Watson’s 91. But it was Watson’s air attack that gave the Tigers the advantage. Watson tossed three touchdowns to Jackson’s one, while throwing for over 300 yards in a close 42-36 win.
Boston College didn’t prove to be much of a threat as Clemson won 56-10 the following week, but N.C. State and number 12 Florida State would be much more worthy adversaries.
The Wolfpack defense tested Clemson’s offense throughout, allowing just 17 points in regulation. The Tigers and ‘Pack went to overtime after N.C. State was unable to convert a short field goal attempt that would have won the game.. After Watson found Artavis Scott in the endzone during the first overtime the Clemson defense helped keep the record unblemished. The ‘Pack had a chance to tie, but on their first pass of overtime, Marcus Edmond sealed the game with an interception in the end zone. Clemson won, 24-17.
The Tigers traveled further south to Florida State the next week to take on the number 12 Seminoles. Clemson jumped out to an early lead with a Wayne Gallman touchdown plunge and a Hunter Renfrow catch putting them in front, 14-0. But Florida State trimmed the Tigers lead to just three at the break. The Seminoles owned the third quarter, adding fourteen more points to make lead 28-20 going into the final quarter.
But a heavy dose of Gallman and Watson, though, propelled the Tigers to the come-from behind victory, 37-34. They had overcome adversity once more.
They beat Syracuse 54-0 the following game, but Pitt slashed any hopes of an undefeated season on November 12. The Panthers escaped Clemson with a 43-42 win on a Chris Blewitt 48-yard field goal with six seconds remaining. The Tigers’ first loss of the season dropped them to number five in the nation.
Clemson kicked it into gear in their final two contests of the regular season, beating Wake Forest, to clinch another ACC Atlantic Division crown, and then rival South Carolina, 56-7, for a third straight win in the series. They finished the regular season 11-1 (7-1).
ACC Championship (Clemson vs. Virginia Tech)
In the ACC Championship, the Tigers battled number 19 Virginia Tech in a contest that was moved from its scheduled location of Charlotte to Orlando due to fall out from “The Bathroom Bill” controversy in the state of North Carolina.
Watson was on fire to start the game, scoring a touchdown run on the opening drive and then throwing one on the second possession. Before the end of the opening quarter, though, Tech cut the lead to 14-7.
Watson found Jordan Leggett on a 10 yard touchdown toss for their second connection of the half, but the two teams traded scores in the second quarter keeping the margin intact. Clemson led 21-14 at halftime.
The Tigers extended their lead in the third quarter behind two touchdown runs from Gallman and Watson, respectively. VT’s Travon McMillian added a 27-yard touchdown scamper prior to the fourth quarter, but Clemson had improved its lead to 14.
After Virginia Tech again pulled within seven early in the fourth quarter. Watson threw his third score of the game, this time to Renfrow, to provide the cushion the Tigers needed. Clemson held off the Hokies to win 42-35, with Watson accounting for five scores.
It wasn’t the blowout they’d hoped for, but much like all season long, the Tigers found a way to win. Including the ACC Championship, Clemson had won seven games by a touchdown or less.
Just as importantly, they were back in a position to again be selected for a second straight to the College Football Playoff.
“Early in the season, it was a bit of a struggle,” said Tim Bourret, a former Clemson Sports Information Director. “To the team’s credit, they knew they had what it took to win the national championship.”
But to do that, they’d have to get by two of the greatest programs in college football.
Fiesta Bowl (Clemson vs. Ohio State: December 31, 2016)
Clemson entered the College Football Playoff as a two seed, and was matched up with number three Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.
The first half was all Clemson as Ohio State struggled to get in rhythm. Greg Huegel knocked in a 45-yard field goal to open the scoring midway through the first quarter. And Watson capped- off a 10-play, 70-yard drive with a touchdown run before the end of the opening period.
The offense slowed a bit in the second quarter, but the defense never let up, holding the Buckeyes scoreless into the half. Clemson led 17-0 through the first 30 minutes of play.
It took almost the entire third quarter for another score, but Watson ran in his second touchdown of the game to extend the Tigers’ lead to 24-0. It was turning into a rout.
Gallman tacked on the final score of the night, running one in from seven yards out midway through the fourth quarter as part of a 31-0 stomping of the Buckeyes.
“That was a pretty dominant performance,” said Bourret.
The offense was certainly clicking, but it was the defense that stole the show that night. Clemson allowed just nine first downs the entire game, while limiting Ohio State to just 215 yards of total offense. The Tiger front got after quarterback J.T. Barrett to the tune of three sacks
and they added two forced fumbles and two interceptions. There was nothing the Buckeyes could do. It was Clemson’s night. And now they were getting ready for a repeat of the previous year’s national championship, hoping to reverse the narrative.
National Championship Game (Clemson vs. Alabama: January 9, 2017)
The College Football Playoff championship game featured number one Alabama and number two Clemson. The Crimson Tide came into the contest having won the national title four times since 2009, including a win over the Tigers the previous season. Alabama had become “the Yankees of college football,” as Bourret puts it. Clemson hadn’t won a title in 35 years, and had never beaten a number one team in program history. It was going to take a spectacular effort to pull off the upset.
Neither defense would budge during the early possessions. The Tigers stuffed the Crimson Tide running game, forcing a punt, and the Tide came up with a fourth down stop after the Tigers drove 37 yards into Alabama territory.
But the Alabama broke open the scoring six minutes in. After quarterback Jalen Hurts broke loose for a 20 yard gain to start the drive, running back Bo Scarbrough capped it off with a 25-yard touchdown run down the left sideline. Alabama led, 7-0.
Both teams exchanged punts, and then on the ensuing possession Clemson approached midfield. But a low snap caused a fumble, and Alabama recovered, taking away a key opportunity.
The Tigers forced a punt moments later, with Alabama pinning Clemson at its own one yard line. Three plays later, they were punting once again.
The Crimson Tide strung together a successful drive to start the second quarter with some significant chunk plays. ArDarius Stewart took an end-around 25 yards to the Clemson 49. And then four plays later, Scarborough took an outside handoff 37 yards to the house. The Tide took a 14-0 lead.
Later in the quarter, Watson found Deon Cain on a wide receiver screen that covered 43 yards, as Cain weaved through the Alabama defense right to left, ending up in enemy territory at the 39. Leggett added a 26-yard catch to the 13 before Watson called his own number, finding pay dirt on an eight-yard touchdown run.
The defenses hung tough the remainder of the quarter, and the teams went into the half with Alabama in the lead, 14-7.
The Tigers received to begin the second half, but a few plays in Gallman made a costly mistake, fumbling with Alabama’s Ryan Anderson recovering and returning to the Clemson 16. The Tigers were fortunate as it led only to a field goal, but the Tide had extended the lead to 17-7.
Clemson came back with a vengeance two possessions later. Watson was precise, delivering a couple of big strikes to Cain, bringing the Tigers inside the Alabama 30. Then Watson connected with Renfrow on a drag route, which Renfrow took the rest of the way, 24 yards, for a touchdown. Clemson was right back in it at 17-14.
In a game full of big plays, Alabama hit on a huge one at the end of the third quarter. Hurts completed a pass to tight end O.J. Howard down the left sideline, and he then took it 68 yards for six, improving Bama’s lead to 10, 24-14.
Watson and company went back to work on the very next drive. Cain, who finished the game with five catches for 94 yards, came through with two first down receptions on the drive. Watson finished it off with a touchdown throw to Mike Williams as the Tigers continued to apply pressure.
What followed were five consecutive punts, three by Alabama and two by Clemson. Neither team was gaining much ground, but it was building up to the most dramatic finish in championship game history.
With 6:33 remaining in the fourth quarter, the score was still 24-21 Alabama. Clemson had the ball with an opportunity to take its first lead of the game. Watson scampered for a first down, then found Legget for a 17 yard gain to the Clemson 43. On the next play, Williams got in on the action, hauling in a 26-yard pass to the Alabama 31. Watson ran the Tigers to the one yard line setting up Gallman for the go-ahead touchdown plunge. With 4:38 on the clock, Clemson took its first lead of the game, 28-24. But this was far from over.
Hurts was ready to turn on the magic as well. On the next possession, The freshman quarterback brought Alabama to midfield. But facing fourth and one, Damien Harris got through the Tigers defensive front for a first down keeping the drive alive. Then the Tide went with some trickery on a wide receiver pass from Smith to Howard, which was good for 24 yards.
With just over two minutes remaining, Hurts broke free for a 30-yard touchdown run, putting the Crimson Tide back on top, 31-28. They were on the verge of collecting a title by beating Clemson for the second straight year.
But there was still two minutes to work with. And Clemson had Deshaun Watson.
Watson executed the two-minute drill to perfection. Starting at the Clemson 32, he found
Leggett for a five yard gain, following that up with a 24-yard pass to Williams, bringing them to the Alabama 39. Then he threw to Scott behind the line of scrimmage, and Scott threw to Gallman for a `10-yard gain to the Alabama 33.
After a short run by Watson and a six yard catch by Renfrow, just over 20 seconds remained.
Watson hit Leggett on a 17-yard gain, bringing the Tigers inside the 10 with 14 seconds left. An incomplete pass and a pass interference call put the ball at the two.
Six seconds remained.
Watson rolled right as the seconds ticked away, then threw to an open Renfrow in the front corner of the end zone. With a single second on the clock, Clemson took the lead, 35-31, securing their first national championship since 1981.
It was a play that required not only proper timing, but also the assistance of Scott. Scott lined-up on the outside near the right sideline, while Renfrow settled in the slot on the right hash mark. As Scott slanted inside, Renfrow cut underneath, freeing him up for the game-winner.
“That was just a great play call,” said Bourret.
Watson was named the offensive MVP, finishing 36-56 for 420 yards, with three touchdown passes as well as 43 yards rushing and another score. On the final drive, he went 5-7 for 50 yards and the title-clinching scoring toss.
“Deshaun Watson was very proficient at running [the two-minute drill]” said Bourret. “His leadership throughout that whole season, but in particular in that game, was just remarkable.”
The Tigers had made it back to the top of college football, and they did it while beating a top-seed for the first time in program history.
“This was the next step,” said Bourret. “This was going over the hump. Winning that one kind of gave the 2018 team the confidence to win the national championship. There were a lot of players that were common denominators on those two teams.”
Since the 2016 season, Clemson has returned to the title game twice, winning another championship in 2018. The current championship standard was set by the 2016 Tigers, cementing a dynasty that continues to this day.
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