David M. Hale
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was a defensive performance for the ages, as dominant as Clemson has been during an era of unmitigated success, but the play that had most of Twitter abuzz during Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl came after the whistle.
Ohio State star Curtis Samuel was tackled by a trio of Clemson defenders at the line of scrimmage, one of many run plays that went nowhere. One of those tacklers was Christian Wilkins, who appeared to use the opportunity to grope a prone Samuel. Replays of Wilkins’ grab quickly exploded into internet memes and outrage among Ohio State fans, and when it was over, Wilkins apologized for his actions.
“I was being silly, and I apologize for that,” Wilkins said. “It’s stuff you do when you’re competing, and I know that’s not a good look. I apologize for that, and I shook hands with him after the game.”
Whether that kind of action falls within the realm of “stuff you do when you’re competing” might be a stretch, but Wilkins doesn’t mind pushing the envelope a little if it rattles an opponent. And while he suggested all was forgiven after the game, Samuel didn’t sound as satisfied when he took to Twitter on Sunday.
— Curtis Samuel (@CurtisSamuel4__) January 1, 2017
Of course, that was probably exactly the reaction Wilkins was looking for.
To be sure, Clemson’s defensive front didn’t need any additional help in dominating the Buckeyes, finishing the game with 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and only two run plays of 10 yards or more allowed. Still, playing a few mind games — from encroaching on Ohio State’s huddle at one point to the grab of Samuel — falls well within Wilkins’ wheelhouse.
“I wasn’t trying to be over the top,” Wilkins said, “but just a little something to get him out of his game.”
Clemson’s defense has dominated much of the season, but it also has left a few players — from Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to Samuel — miffed in the aftermath. And the more the opposition is thinking about something other than the next play, the happier the Tigers seem to be.
“We’re just trying to exploit the little things,” defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. “The game is 90 percent mental.”
Of course, the final obstacle on Clemson’s path to a national championship knows a little something about the mental game, too. For Alabama, words aren’t necessary. History does the talking.
The big, bad Alabama defense is enough to make any offense consider the dangers to its own personal safety, and that intimidation factor is also a weapon.
“Intimidation factors come from brands, and they’re the brand right now in college football,” Clemson center Jay Guillermo said. “I feel like some teams, you watch them on film and it’s just obvious they’re defeated already.”
That’s something Clemson coach Dabo Swinney talked about with his team before the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers weren’t going to let Ohio State’s brand impact the game.
Against Alabama, the brand recognition gets ratcheted up another notch, but Clemson’s mental approach won’t change. Mind games? The way the Tigers see it, they’ve already proven they can go toe to toe with the mighty Crimson Tide, taking a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter of last year’s national championship game.
So perhaps the mind games are a wash this time.
Wilkins joked that he has a full bag of tricks, but he’s keenly aware that Alabama isn’t likely to fall victim to any of them.
“Every game comes down to the trenches, and we’ll do our best to dominate those trenches as best we can,” Wilkins said. “But we know Alabama isn’t a pushover.”
And Alabama will step off the bus looking like the biggest, baddest team in the country yet again, but Clemson won’t be swayed.
“Our guys will have some confidence, but we believe we’re a team similar to Alabama, and when we step off the bus, our logo carries some weight,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “I think they’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s going to be a big challenge, but I think our guys will be up to it.”