TAMPA, Fla. -- The clock read 8:22.
Michigan led 22-21.
Jadeveon Clowney, frustrated for most of Tuesday afternoon, saw the minutes winding down in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl. He needed to reassure his teammates. Perhaps even himself.
“Guys,” he said, “I’m going to show up. I’m coming. Just hang in there, we’re going to win this game. I’m going to make a big play.”
South Carolina had just lost a replay review on a blown first-down call following a Michigan fake punt. Michigan had momentum. South Carolina had a chapped coach and incredulous players. Steve Spurrier later recalled his conversation with a referee on the field:
Spurrier: “You know the ball did not touch the first-down marker?”
Referee: “I know it didn’t.”
Spurrier: “Well, why’d you give it to him?”
Referee: “I don’t know.”
Michigan had a fresh set of downs at its 41, hoping to add to its lead. Devin Gardner snapped the ball. The big play -- the big hit -- came almost instantaneously, showing once again why Clowney is the most unstoppable defensive force in college football.
Clowney barreled through the line untouched and smacked Vincent Smith so viciously, both Smith’s helmet and the ball went flying.
“It sounded like a car wreck,” South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said.
“I heard it,” receiver Bruce Ellington said. “And I jumped when I heard it.”
Incredible play, incredible athleticism.
“He’s got that one little slip move and they get nothing but air when they go at him,” Spurrier said.
That would have been enough to qualify as one of the biggest plays of his career. And yet, he had more in him.
With one more move, Clowney picked the loose ball up with one hand, got up and tried to score.
“It’s just unbelievable the stuff he can do,” said South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who watched from the sideline. “Just like a switch he can turn on and say, 'All right, I’m going to take over,' and he does it.”
South Carolina teammates have seen plays like this before, and yet, they have no explanation. “I was like man, this guy -- it’s crazy the things he can do,” Ellington said.
But what they had was a momentum shift, a play to begin a host of plays that would lead South Carolina to a come-from-behind 33-28 victory. And once again, the SEC dealt another blow to the Big Ten, a conference that needed wins Tuesday more than any other.
Northwestern got its historic bowl win. And for a time, Michigan and Nebraska gave the Big Ten hope they could take down the mightiest conference in the land, do the unthinkable and actually win on a gorgeous Florida afternoon.
While the Wolverines had South Carolina on the ropes, the Huskers had Georgia in their sights 90 miles east in Orlando. Then, in a matter of minutes ... gone. Georgia cruised. Michigan met Clowney.
That big hit set off a wild fourth quarter that ended up seeing three lead changes, and vintage Spurrier. On the play after the big hit, Spurrier called for a deep passing play -- one of the areas the Gamecocks excelled in all afternoon. Connor Shaw threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to game MVP Ace Sanders, and South Carolina went ahead 27-22.
Michigan then drove 64 yards, refusing to have Clowney get in their heads. Gardner delivered a beautiful 17-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Gallon and the Wolverines went back ahead 28-27.
South Carolina took over with 3:29 left. Shaw started the drive, but went out with a foot injury. Thompson finished it, throwing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ellington with 11 seconds remaining, delivering the victory. Spurrier has rotated quarterbacks in his past, and said he would do the same headed into this game.
But the way Shaw and Thompson worked so effectively, so seamlessly on that final drive, spoke to the maturity of both the players and this team. Other South Carolina teams may have folded up shop in the fourth quarter.
Not this one.
Not with Clowney on the field.
“It gave us a lot of momentum,” Ellington said. “Our defense got a little mad, a little uptight and they made a couple of plays for us to get the ball back.”
For his part, Clowney said he has delivered big hits like that before. He recalled his hit on Aaron Murray against Georgia last year. Thompson recalled a hit Clowney made while he still played in high school. Clowney said of the hit on Smith, “Everybody else said it looked worse.”
Call the play payback for the refs’ mistake. Or payback for a hit to the groin Smith delivered earlier in the game, sending Clowney to the sideline. “He laughed about it,” Clowney recalled. “I said, 'I'm going to get you later on.’”
When he did, Smith lay on the turf.
“He didn’t say nothing,” Clowney recalled. “He just froze up, laid there. I was laughing.”
“Yeah I was laughing, that’s what I do,” he said. “Hey it’s a game, competition.”
A game the best player on the field single-handedly changed with a big hit that will live on as long as he plays.