MIAMI -- The night started appropriately enough: Clemson and Ohio State trading scores behind their terrifically talented dual-threat quarterbacks, almost daring each other with a game of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
It was Tajh Boyd first. Then Braxton Miller. Then Clemson jumped out to a big lead. Ohio State refused to bend. Then Ohio State jumped out to a big lead. Clemson refused to bend. Momentum shifted every few drives Friday night, swinging back and forth like a ticking grandfather clock, counting down to the final thrilling minutes.
Indeed, the Discover Orange Bowl fell right in line with every other BCS game to date, providing high drama with a lot of flair and a bit of the unexpected. Both programs needed a victory in the worst way to validate their performances in 2013, almost standing together like mirror images. No surprise then that Boyd and Miller began the game the way they did, considering they run offenses nearly identical to one another.
But where scheme is similar, players are not. Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins proved that over and over, thoroughly dominating a flummoxed and injury-depleted Buckeyes secondary in a 40-35 victory. Watkins finished with a school- and Orange Bowl-record 227 yards on a school- and Orange Bowl-record 16 receptions, scoring twice to take home game MVP honors.
Boyd had 505 yards of total offense and scored six touchdowns, ending his career with a triumphant victory he needed badly. But Watkins was the most brilliant player on the field throughout the night, showing off his superior speed at every turn.
“The biggest thing going into this game, we were going to win or lose going through No. 10 [Boyd] and No. 2 [Watkins],” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Hard as it is to believe considering those dual performances, Clemson could not do enough for most of the night to put the Buckeyes away, thanks mainly to its own mistakes and an unevenly officiated game (Clemson was called for 15 penalties; Ohio State six).
Miller, playing through severe pain, was not perfect. But he kept Ohio State in the contest, getting up after one huge sack followed another huge sack, gutting out a gritty performance. He led consecutive touchdown drives to close the first half, giving Ohio State a 22-20 lead at intermission.
“If you ask me how I felt at halftime, I felt fantastic,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Like we’re going to be in a great ballgame here.”
The Buckeyes built that lead to 29-20 after Carlos Hyde scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter. It seemed improbable, quite frankly, that an undermanned Ohio State team held the lead, considering it had yet to find a way to stop Watkins.
You wondered how long that lead would last.
Answer: Not long. But it was not solely because of Watkins.
Ohio State lost its poise.
The Buckeyes closed the game with turnovers on four of their final five possessions. The first two -- a fumbled punt by Philly Brown and a Miller interception -- were converted into touchdowns, giving Clemson the lead back. Miller hung tough, putting the Buckeyes back ahead 35-34 on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Hyde with 11:35 remaining in the fourth.
Even still, Clemson had all the momentum. Boyd led the game-winning drive with ease, throwing a perfectly called pass to tight end Stanton Seckinger with 6:16 remaining for the final margin. Miller fumbled and threw an interception on the final two possessions, and Clemson started throwing oranges all over the field.
In the end, it was Boyd who finished with more carries and more yards than Miller. Swinney admitted afterward that Clemson used more designed rushes for Boyd because he felt it gave the Tigers their best chance to run the ball. “A little bit of what they do,” Swinney said, in a nod to Ohio State.
While nobody on the Clemson side said the game plan was made specifically to take advantage of an Ohio State secondary missing starting cornerback Bradley Roby and starting two freshmen, the results on the field spoke for the Tigers.
“We saw the young cornerback out there and how far he was off us,” Watkins said. “The wide receivers and tight ends did a great job of blocking downfield, and coach did a great job of just coming back to the same thing and giving us success.”
While it is true both teams needed a win in the worst way, one could argue Clemson needed it much more. This is a program that has fought for respect for years now, still trying to erase the horror that was the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle, a game Swinney has repeatedly called a “butt whipping.” Boyd and Watkins were in that game, rendered ineffective because an avalanche of turnovers essentially limited what they could do against West Virginia.
But that was their first year playing under offensive coordinator Chad Morris. That was their first time playing in a BCS game, youngsters on a team full of them. Thanks in large part to that loss and more recent defeats to Florida State and South Carolina, there might not be a team in the country ridiculed more than Clemson given where this program stands today: back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history.
All behind a record-setting quarterback and a dynamic receiver destined to become a first-round NFL pick.
“The significance of this game, not for me particularly, not for this team particularly, but for the university, for the fans that support us, has been unbelievable,” Boyd said. “I couldn’t pick a better way to go out as a senior.”
Or for Clemson to close out 2013.