Not to sound like the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, but the 45th Chick-fil-A Bowl featured the third-best matchup on this year’s cluttered postseason board. (Behind only Oregon-Kansas State in the Fiesta and Notre Dame-Alabama in the BCS title game.) You had LSU, which this time last year was preparing to play for a national championship, and Clemson, which at the dawn of 2012 was, er, readying to yield 70 points in the Orange Bowl.
And that recent history, divergent as it was, is what made the Chick-fil-A so enticing. LSU is a big-time program from The Only Conference That Matters, while Clemson remains a wild card from that basketball league. Clemson entered 10-2, same as LSU, but the orange Tigers closed their regular season by losing at home to a South Carolina team without both Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw.
This happened on the same day Florida State lost at home to Florida and Georgia Tech, recent conqueror of Lane Kiffin’s misguided minions, was beaten by 32 points in Athens. It was yet another in an extensive series of ACC reversals, and it left Clemson with still more explaining to do. How can such a conspicuously gifted aggregation whiff on most every big game?
Six Clemson players made first-team All-ACC, including quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, tight end Brandon Ford and two offensive linemen. All of which made it most curious that Florida State actually won the ACC, but that’s the Clemson way. These Tigers look sleek as long as they have the ball; it’s when they don’t that bad things happen.
Sure enough, a bad thing happened on the Chick-fil-A’s second snap. Sammy Watkins, technically a receiver, took a handoff and was greeted rudely by LSU’s Barkevious Mingo. Watkins fumbled the ball and hurt his ankle, and two plays later the orange Tigers were seven points behind.
That was the story of Monday’s first half. Clemson won the eyeball test — it outgained LSU 248 yards to 106 — but never got ahead. It managed to sack LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, once a Georgia Bulldog, four times in the first quarter, but in the second quarter Clemson had a tying extra point blocked. Thus did it trail at halftime for the first time this season.
For all its success, LSU can sometimes outsmart itself, which is to say that LSU can leave you wondering if it knows what it’s doing. The team with the fifth-best rushing attack in the brawny SEC tried only eight true runs — we won’t count the Mettenberger sacks as runs, even though statisticians do — against the team with the fifth-worst rushing defense in the finesse ACC. So why, nearly everyone wondered, would a team that runs better than it throws try to make Mettenberger into Matt Ryan?
Apparently the long halftime recess gave Leslie Miles and Co. the chance to rethink. On the first play of the third quarter, Mettenberger handed the ball to tailback Jeremy Hill, who took it 57 yards. LSU led 21-13, soon to be 24-13, and the game had assumed an odd look: Clemson was making plays and gaining yards without really putting pressure on LSU.
The orange Tigers drew within 24-16 inside the final 10 minutes. Then they sacked Mettenberger a sixth — yes, a sixth — time, and now Clemson had a chance to tie. (For the record, there was once a time when some Georgia fans considered Mettenberger superior to Aaron Murray. No one thinks as much anymore.) It got the touchdown, the splendid Hopkins catching Boyd’s pass in the back of the end zone, but a two-point try was unavailing.
And there it stood, one group of Tigers who call their stadium Death Valley leading another group of Tigers who call their stadium Death Valley separated by two points with 2:47 to play on the final night of 2012. Then LSU lost its mind and, rather than run the ball, ordered three consecutive Mettenberger passes and, not surprisingly, had to punt.
To its credit, Clemson rose to this moment. Boyd, who passed for 346 yards, found Hopkins, who caught 13 passes for 191 yards, on fourth-and-16, and Chandler Cantazaro kicked the winning field goal as the game clock struck zero. For once, the orange Tigers didn’t turn into a pumpkin with midnight at hand. Instead they outfought and outsmarted one of the big boys from the biggest league.
And nobody could say justice hadn’t been served. The ACC Tigers had been much the better team, outgaining LSU by 236 yards, running 100 snaps to the SEC Tigers’ 48 and amassing 32 first downs to LSU’s nine. “This is a landmark win,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, speaking four minutes after midnight, and it had that feel.
“They kept playing, all the way to fourth-and-16,” the effusive Swinney said, and his Clemson Tigers might still be savoring this one when 2013 becomes 2014.
By Mark Bradley