MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Oklahoma’s “Remember the Russell Athletic Bowl” rallying cry came up empty in the rematch against Clemson Thursday night in the Orange Bowl. The No. 4 Sooners did a little better than their 34-point loss a year ago in Orlando, but the No. 1 Tigers and quarterback Deshaun Watson proved they are for real in a 37-17 victory that ran their record to 14-0.
The College Football Playoff semifinal win enabled Clemson to advance to the CFP championship game on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona, against No. 2 Alabama, which beat Michigan State, 38-0, in Thursday night’s Cotton Bowl semifinal.
Watson completed 16 of 31 passes for 187 yards and one touchdown and carried 24 times for 145 yards and another TD. Running back Wayne Gallman had a big game with 26 carries for 150 yards and two TDs, and the Tigers didn’t miss suspended backup wide receiver Deon Cain, whose production was replaced by that of Hunter Renfrow, who caught four passes for 59 yards and a TD.
Clemson rolled up 530 yards of total offense compared to 378 for Oklahoma (11-2), which got 311 passing yards by quarterback Baker Mayfield but only managed 67 yards rushing. Mayfield was under duress from a Tigers pass rush that sacked him five times and forced two interceptions.
“We were just the better team tonight,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s 17 in a row for us, the longest winning streak in the country, and we’ve played a lot of good teams in those 17 games.
“It’s awesome to be in the national championship game . . . In the second half, we put it all together. We dominated in the third quarter and just put it away in the fourth quarter.”
Oklahoma took a 17-16 halftime lead when Mayfield led a 43-second drive that ended with his 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews. But given the way Clemson’s defensive line was stuffing running back Samaje Perine (15 carries, 58 yards) and pressuring Mayfield, it seemed just a matter of time before the Sooners broke.
Sure enough, the Tigers took the second half kickoff and pounded the ball, driving 75 yards in 12 plays to score on a 1-yard run by Gallman that gave Clemson the lead for good at 23-17. After the Tigers held Perine for no gain on fourth-and-one at the Clemson 30, Gallman broke a 21-yard run that began a four-play TD drive ending with a 35-yard pass from Watson to Renfrow for a 30-17 lead.
“Really it started with the 11-yard run by Wayne to open it up,” Clemson guard Eric MacLain said of the go-ahead drive in the third quarter. “We could tell at that moment that they were done physically. Maybe even a little bit mentally. We were just running all over them, and Wayne and Deshaun both were over 100 yards and just really dominated.”
After Renfrow’s touchdown, the next Oklahoma drive ended with the Sooners’ first turnover on a tipped-ball interception by Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson. That didn’t lead to any immediate damage, but another backwards drive by the Sooners and a punt set Clemson up at midfield. The rout was on when Gallman capped a nine-play drive with a 4-yard scoring run to push the Tigers’ lead to 37-17.
“They were up by one point coming into [halftime], and it’s kind of time to empty the tank,” Gallman said of a second half in which he rushed for 111 of his 150 yards.
Added Watson: “It started with the offensive line. ‘Mac’ can tell you we get in the huddle and tell each other, ‘Let’s go dominate.’ ”
That’s exactly what the Tigers did, leaving no doubt about how deserving they are of the No. 1 ranking.