MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It wasn’t the play that decided Clemson’s 37-17 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve, but the decision by Tigers coach Dabo Swinney to run a wild fake punt early in the second quarter was both an expression of confidence in his No. 1-ranked team and a message that he will do whatever it takes to win a national championship.
With Clemson trailing 7-3 and facing a fourth-and-4 at the Sooners’ 44-yard line, Swinney sent in the punt team. But instead of kicking, punter Andy Teasdall lofted a high, arching pass deep down the left sideline, and Christian Wilkins — a 6-4, 315-pound defensive tackle who had lined up as an eligible receiver flanked to the left — ran under it and made an acrobatic catch for a 31-yard gain to the OU 13. Two plays later, quarterback Deshaun Watson scored on a 5-yard run for a 10-7 lead.
With a laugh, Swinney said: “We shocked them, didn’t we? Ain’t nobody covering that big ol’ guy.”
In fact, redshirt freshman Wilkins is spectacularly athletic, and Swinney said his team had practiced that play often.
“I called it ‘UConn’ because Christian Wilkins is from Connecticut [where he attended prep school]. I told him, ‘Don’t be shocked if we call it.’ I felt that it was the right time because we had put enough rollout punting on tape, so I knew had prepared for that.
“Christian did a great job of getting small and skinny and kind of hiding, if a 330-pounder can do that. He’s an athletic dude, and Teasdall did an awesome job. He sold it perfectly. You saw the athleticism of big ol’ No. 42 because he had to find the ball in the air and get himself in position to finish it.
“It was a great play and I thought a spark that we needed. I felt like we were a little stagnant, a little tight. I wanted to send a message to the guys: ‘Listen, we’re here to play, and let’s just cut it loose.’ ”
The Tigers (14-0) ultimately dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to overpower Oklahoma (12-2).
That strength up front and the versatility of Watson is what Clemson will rely upon in the College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama (13-1) on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona. But Swinney’s aggressive message should encourage his players to seize the moment for a school that won its only previous national championship in 1981.
Alabama is favored by 6 1⁄2 points, coming off its 38-0 Cotton Bowl victory over Michigan State, but Oklahoma was favored to knock off No. 1, too.
“Shouldn’t be real hard to get guys ready to play for the national championship,” Swinney said. “This is it. This is truly the biggest game of the year, so we’ll be ready.”