GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a return trip to the desert, Clemson found redemption in utter domination.
Part I of the make-good tour is done. Now comes the really hard part: a rematch against Alabama in the College Football Playoff national title game.
Deshaun Watson ran for two touchdowns and threw another as No. 3 Clemson crushed No. 2 Ohio State, 31-0, on Saturday night in the Fiesta Bowl.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney had sold his players on getting to celebrate at the same site where they lost to Alabama in the national title game last season. This time they get the confetti shower and the trophy.
With that taken care of, it is on to Tampa, Florida, for the Tigers, where they will face the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Jan. 9. The teams that started the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 will most certainly end it that way, too.
“If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat ’em,” Swinney said.
In what figures to be Watson’s final college game, he will try to lead Clemson (13-1) to its first national title since 1981. The junior and Heisman Trophy runner-up passed for 259 yards and ran for 57 against the Buckeyes (11-2), who could not keep Clemson’s big and quick defensive line out of their backfield.
Freshman Clelin Ferrell had a sack among his three tackles for loss and Clemson allowed only 215 yards and nine first downs. The Buckeyes were shut out for the first time since 1993 against Michigan and one of Urban Meyer’s teams was held scoreless for the first time in 194 games as a head coach.
“I’m not used to it. We’re not used it. It’s not going to happen again,” Meyer said.
Watson made it 24-0 with 2:06 left in the third quarter when he faked a pitch, cut through a hole and into the end zone from 7 yards. He hopped through the back of the end zone and did a little dance in front of the Ohio State section.
The rest was a formality.
Much the way Alabama’s defense suffocated Washington in the day’s first semifinal, Clemson gave Ohio State no options. The Buckeyes came in averaging 258 yards rushing and finished with 88. J.T. Barrett threw for 127 yards and was intercepted twice.
The sellout crowd of 71,279 at University of Phoenix Stadium featured far more Ohio State scarlet than Clemson orange at kickoff, but by the halfway point in the fourth quarter, Tigers fans mostly had the place to themselves.
The Tigers have stood up to high expectations after last season ended with a stinging 45-40 loss in a classic national title game against Alabama.
There were close calls for Clemson early in the season against Auburn and Troy and the Tigers needed some luck to beat North Carolina State in overtime. An offense that welcomed back star receiver Mike Williams was not quite the unstoppable juggernaut so many expected.