ATLANTA - The Clemson Tigers have had some unforgettable years.
Now they have a New Year’s Eve they’ll never forget.
Chandler Catanzaro split the uprights on a 37-yard field goal as time expired to lift No. 14 Clemson (11-2) to a stunning 25-24 victory over LSU on Monday in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Trailing by two points with 99 seconds to play and 80 yards to travel in the Georgia Dome, Dabo Swinney’s team moved all the way to the LSU 20, leaving the game in the hands (and right foot) of Catanzaro.
The junior sidewinder delivered in the ultimate pressure situation, helping his team record just the fourth 11-victory season in school history and sending LSU (10-3) down to a shocking setback.
“It was unbelievable,” Catanzaro said. “I have to thank the team for setting me up. It seemed like that last drive was meant to be. I was confident out there. I’ve kicked a game-winner before and I just went out there and kicked it.”
Swinney was obviously proud of his kicker but there was plenty of pride to spread around.
"I'm just so excited for our team and our program,” Swinney said. “It's been 31 years since we've won 11 games at Clemson. It's been a steady process. And tonight these guys fought every play. They fought for every patch of grass. They overcame adversity. They played with a lot of love and toughness, and a desire to win. They played with a commitment that is uncommon.”
This was not the expected SEC beatdown of an outmanned ACC foe by any stretch of the imagination; for much of the night Clemson gave as good as it got in a physical and often chippy battle. In fact Brent Venables’ defense turned in a tour de force performance, finishing with a season-high eight sacks.
Rashard Hall had eight solo tackles for the victors while Spender Shuey was in on seven.
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But two fumbles that led to 10 LSU points, a blocked extra point and the running of freshman sensation Jeremy Hill (124 yards, two touchdowns) seemed to be enough to lift Les Miles’ No. 9 squad to a victory and an 11-2 record.
Swinney and company had other ideas.
Clemson scored with 2:47 remaining in the game when Offensive MVP Tajh Boyd connected with DeAndre Hopkins on a 12-yard aerial that closed the gap with the Bayou Bengals to 24-22.
But the try for two failed, leaving the Palmetto State-based Tigers two points shy of possibly sending this one to overtime.
Another good defensive stand forced a punt, though, giving Clemson the ball one more time.
“(Having) 1:39 is like 10-15 minutes for us,” Boyd said. “When I saw the clock and saw that we had three timeouts I said, ‘Let’s get it.’ It didn’t look promising after the first few plays but it became a special moment.”
Hopkins kept the drive alive with a 26-yard catch on a fourth-and-16 play from the Clemson 14, and the ACC Tigers rode that momentum all the way to victory.
Boyd was 36-50-0 for 346 yards and two TDs while Hopkins caught 13 balls for 191 yards and reeled in both of Boyd’s scoring throws.
“Boyd was phenomenal,” Miles said. “We delivered a lot of clean hits against him and he still was able to continue to play so well.”
While LSU’s first touchdown of the game took 55 seconds, its first of the second half came just 17 seconds into the frame.
A 43-yard kickoff return by Michael Ford helped Miles’ Tigers set up shop at their 43, and one handoff later they were on the board again when Hill cut loose for a 47-yard touchdown at 13:52 of the third.
It was the 12th TD of the year for the true freshman, breaking Dalton Hilliard’s record of 11 as a first-year Bengal, and it provided a bit of separation for LSU at 21-13.
Drew Alleman provided a bit more at the third quarter’s 4:49 juncture, making it a two-score game when his 20-yard field kicked LSU to a 24-13 edge.
With 9:26 remaining in both team’s seasons Catanzaro cracked a 26-yard goal to pull Clemson to with 24-16.
The contest couldn’t have started any worse for Clemson.
Sammy Watkins fumbled on the second play from scrimmage, suffering a game-ending ankle injury in the process and giving the ball to LSU at the 23.
“After Sammy got hurt on the second play we had to do a lot of cutting and pasting of our game plan,” CU offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We had a lot of it planned around him.”
It took just two snaps and two carries by Eric Hill to put the SEC representatives on the board, with Hill rambling 17-yards for a score at 14:05 of the first to put the Bayou Bengals in front.
The Palmetto State-based Tigers, however, answered the bell - and they answered it quickly.
Marching 75 yards in 11 plays and sparked by Boyd’s 4-for-4 passing and running, Clemson marched all the way to the Bayou Bengals’ 11. From there Boyd did the heavy lifting himself, spinning loose at the line of scrimmage and racing across the stripe for a TD at 9:46 of the first.
Catanzaro kicked true, knotting the score at 7-all.
That’s how the score stood through the first quarter but LSU regained the advantage less than two minutes into the second stanza.
Traveling 65 yards in eight plays – and aided by a roughing the passer penalty – Les Miles’ crew advanced to the Clemson 6.
From there Zach Mettenberger decided to test the skies, hitting Jarvis Landry for a touchdown strike as the sophomore wideout clutched the ball and fell backward into the back corner of the end zone.
The kick made it a 14-7 game with 13:13 showing on the second quarter clock.
With 5:43 to go before the bands took the field, it was a 1-point game.
Starting at their own 30 and running eight plays, Swinney’s Tigers chipped away at the LSU defense and finally cracked it on a thread-the-needle hookup between Boyd and Hopkins that resulted in an 11-yard touchdown.
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The extra point was not automatic, though; LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan blocked Catanzaro’s attempt at the single to help Miles’ crew stay in front at 14-13 and snap the kicker’s streak of 56-consecutive PATs.
And when the horn sounded to end 30 minutes of play, Clemson was staring at a halftime deficit for the first time all season.
“Before the game, (Swinney) talked about how we would face adversity,” Boyd said. “Getting the win would be all about how we responded to it.”
At the end of the night, Catanzaro responded in the best way possible.