How Dabo Swinney's risky fake punt breathed new life into Clemson

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- During Clemson's first team meeting in early August, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney unveiled his first motto of the season. Swinney loves acronyms and slogans and dozens more would follow, but the initial one might have been the most prophetic.

"I gave them shirts that said, 'Dream The Dream,' " Swinney said. "I said, '15 for '15,' with the message being let's make them print 15 tickets this year, somehow, someway. Tonight coming in, I said, 'Hey, tonight we make that dream a reality. You're four quarters away.' My gosh, they've got to print a 15th ticket to see the Tigers now."

After the No. 1 Tigers walloped No. 4 Oklahoma 37-17 in the Capital One Orange Bowl on New Year's Eve, they'll get to play their 15th game in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T on Jan. 11 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

After winning their 17th consecutive game dating to last season, the Tigers will meet No. 2 Alabama at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

"We've been doing this all season, putting it out there for the world to see," Tigers tailback Wayne Gallman said. "It's very sweet. My mind is blown right now, just to be able to go to the national championship game. We'd be the best team in the nation. It's a dream come true."

The Tigers, the only undefeated team remaining in FBS, dominated the Sooners on both sides of the ball at Sun Life Stadium. They're one victory away from winning the school's first national championship since 1981.

"Dabo's had this vision for a while," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He knew this was going to happen. I'm not going to lie: I was committed to the vision, but I had my doubts."

The Tigers, who started the season ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press top 25 poll and were expected to finish second behind three-time defending ACC champion Florida State in the Atlantic Division, had every reason to doubt their confident head coach.

Coming into the season, Clemson had to replace every starter on both lines of scrimmage, and star quarterback Deshaun Watson was coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered at the end of the 2014 season.

Even after going 13-0 this season, the Tigers were four-point underdogs to the Sooners, who had won seven games in a row coming into the Orange Bowl. For whatever reason, the only remaining unbeaten and No. 1-ranked team in the country was actually an underdog in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Clemson opened as a 7-point underdog against Alabama for the CFP title.

"Our team has shown heart [and] had guts all year long," Swinney said. "I told them, 'You ain't favored to win the damn game, but we ain't no underdog.' Everybody out there, nobody believes in this team except these guys, and they've just got a great heart and it showed tonight."

And the Tigers have a head coach who is willing to do just about anything to make them believe. In the Orange Bowl, the Sooners took the opening kickoff and methodically drove 75 yards for a touchdown. Clemson's defense, which lost star defensive end Shaq Lawson to a left knee injury on the first play from scrimmage, didn't seem to have an answer for OU's offense.

Then, after the Tigers kicked a field goal to make it 7-3, Swinney pulled out his latest motivational ploy. On fourth-and-4 at the OU 44, Swinney called a fake punt. Punter Andy Teasdall, who had called his own fake punt (unsuccessfully) in the Tigers' 45-37 win over North Carolina in the Dec. 5 ACC championship game, took the snap and rolled to his left. He fired a pass down the left sideline to defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, a 322-pound freshman, for a 31-yard gain.

Think about it: Swinney called a fake punt and threw the ball to a defensive tackle in the biggest game of his coaching career -- with a spot in the national championship game on the line. It was the first time in Clemson history that a defensive lineman caught a pass in a game.

"It was tremendous execution," Swinney said. "That was the best part -- we actually called the fake."

That play, perhaps more than any other this season, might have embodied what the Tigers and their 46-year-old coach are all about. Just like that, with his players perhaps wondering whether they were good enough to beat the high-powered Sooners, Swinney turned the table on one of college football's traditional heavyweights.

"It got us more hyped," Gallman said. "Bodies came back to life and guys were ready to play."

Three plays later, Watson scored on a 5-yard run to give the Tigers a 10-7 lead. After falling behind 17-16 at the half, Clemson scored three times in the second half and its defense tossed a shutout to pull away from the Sooners in a very convincing rout.

"That fake punt has worked every time in practice," Venables said. "Dabo's a perpetuator of being positive. He's got a belief in everybody. He says it all the time -- he's an over-believer. If that play doesn't validate that statement, nothing does."

After Wednesday's practice each week this season, Swinney personally coached the Tigers' special teams. They practiced trick plays over and over. The fake punt they executed against Oklahoma is called "UConn" because Wilkins attended Suffield Academy in Suffield, Connecticut.

"I think what it says is he believes in our guys," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "He told our guys we were going to be aggressive and attack, and not just sit back. Just because the stage gets bigger, we're not going to change what we do. It's just the belief he has and it's contagious with our players. That's been the biggest change in our program -- the belief in our players and that comes from him."

In 60 minutes on New Year's Eve, the Tigers showed they're more than an upstart program with a coach who likes corny acronyms. While B.Y.O.G. ("Bring Your Own Guts") and Swinney's postgame dancing might have generated buzz this season, the Tigers are a legitimate national championship contender.

Even after losing Lawson, an All-American and projected first-round pick in next spring's NFL draft, the Tigers held OU to only 67 rushing yards on 33 carries. Early in the third quarter, the Tigers knocked Sooners tailback Samaje Perine out of the game with a devastating hit, and then knocked tailback Joe Mixon out three plays later with an even harder tackle. Only Perine would return.

"I would say [with] their ability to run the football and our inability to run the football, they played in a more physical way than we did," OU coach Bob Stoops said.

The Tigers also showed they're more than a one-trick pony on offense. Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, didn't throw the ball particularly well. He completed 16 of 31 passes for 187 yards with one touchdown and one interception. But the Tigers ran for 312 yards, a Clemson bowl record, with Gallman gaining 150 yards with two touchdowns and Watson gaining 145 yards with one score.

On this night, the Tigers could play with anybody, maybe even Alabama.

"I thought we were the better team coming in," Swinney said. "But you've got to go earn it, and that's what they did. They did it for four quarters, and man, I'm just so proud of them. I'm so happy for Clemson. It's been 34 years since they played for a national championship."

Now Swinney has a 15th game to make believers out of everyone else.