David M. Hale
GLENDALE, Ariz. — When last year’s national championship game ended, Ben Boulware, Clemson’s vicious linebacker, sat in the locker room and sobbed.
“Cried like a baby,” Boulware said. “And it still hurts.”
On Saturday, Boulware and his team marched from that same locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, took the field against a favored Ohio State team, and won a shot at redemption.
For four quarters of the College Football Playoff semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Clemson’s defense annihilated the Buckeyes’ offensive line, tormented quarterback J.T. Barrett, and scratched, clawed and grabbed in search of a way to get back to that championship game and get another shot at mighty Alabama.
As the clock ticked down on 2016, Clemson’s lone mission nearing completion, redemption was the reward for a 31-0 thrashing of overmatched Ohio State. It was the Buckeyes’ first shutout loss since 1993, and Boulware stood facing the crowd, arms raised yelling “zero points, zero points.”
Coaching his 194th game, OSU’s Urban Meyer had never been shut out as a head coach. This is Ohio State’s worst loss since losing to No. 1 USC by 32 in 2008.
The day after last year’s title game, Boulware shaved — a cleansing routine — and began growing a beard he hasn’t trimmed since. It’s scraggly and unkempt, and after Saturday’s win it made for a sweat-soaked magnet for confetti.
“We’re back in the natty,” Boulware said. “We’re back for revenge, back for redemption, and we’re coming for Alabama.”
Throughout last winter and spring, defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, now a sophomore, corralled his Clemson teammates and led them onto the practice field, reminding each one that the road back to the mountaintop was steeper than the one they’d already climbed. On Saturday, the Clemson defensive line owned Ohio State, racking up one backfield tackle after another and stamping out any hope for a Buckeyes comeback with one punishing blow after another.
“Through mat drills, through spring, through camp,” Wilkins said, “I took it personally to make sure everybody knows the standard. I know what this team is capable of.”
Fall camp opened at Clemson with a video, highlights of a brilliant 2015 season that ended with tough-to-take images of Alabama celebrating a national championship at the Tigers’ expense. The theme, which coaches and players have rehashed again and again in the months since, was finishing.
On Saturday, after zipping one of the prettiest passes of his season, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson turned to watch another video on the big screen at University of Phoenix Stadium, a replay of a nifty scramble that set up the score. He laughed. The finishing line was within sight.
Three times Ohio State (11-2) opened drives in Clemson territory. During the regular season, the Buckeyes scored on 83 percent of such drives. On Saturday, those three drives resulted in seven points … for Clemson. It was complete domination, necessary preparation for the monster that awaits in Tampa, Florida, at the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.
“We kind of limped to the line last year,” cornerback Cordrea Tankersley said. “So we just want to sprint to the line, finish the right way, have no regrets.”
Along the walls of Clemson’s football facility, where most years the names of each opponent are splashed with dates and scores, this year, the coaching staff listed just a single opponent: the Tigers. Clemson was better than everyone it would play, Dabo Swinney assumed, but the Tigers had a standard they had to meet.
For so much of this season, fans and critics wondered if it was possible for Swinney’s crew to match that standard. Close games early and a loss to Pittsburgh were examples of why so few teams that reach the pinnacle and fall short manage to scale the mountain again.
But Saturday, Clemson (13-1) planted its flag at the peak. For the second straight year, it will play Alabama (14-0) for the national title, the only goal that really mattered to the Tigers.
“You pray so much about it, and you think so much about it — just the personal want-to to get back here,” running back Wayne Gallman said. “It feels great to know you put in all that work to get to this point.”