Dabo Swinney says Clemson's next great step is to consistently 'win games like these.'
The 12th-ranked Tigers put their New Year's resolution into action Friday night, as Clemson slammed the door on the ghost of the 2011 Orange Bowl and beat sixth-ranked Ohio State 40-35 at Sun Life Stadium.
But it was Clemson's defense that both set the stage and provided the finishing touch for the Tigers' coveted 11th victory and first BCS bowl victory.
After the Tigers went ahead 40-35 with a fourth-quarter touchdown, Clemson's defense came up big with a pair of game-clinching takeaways - first, a fumble-causing sack of Braxton Miller by Bashaud Breeland and recovery by Spencer Shuey, and then, after OSU had given itself a final chance by picking off a pass by Boyd, an interception by Stephone Anthony that finished the job.
The victory capped a bittersweet season for the Tigers, who climbed to their highest national ranking since 1981, but then twice stumbled on the big stage with losses to top-10 teams.
Unlike those games, Clemson successfully executed Swinney's 'plan to win' against the Buckeyes, as they turned the turnover margin in their favor and won with what Swinney described as a "total team effort."
"We found a way to win, after trying to find some ways to lose it," said Swinney. "We've got a lot of heart on this team. Two years ago we got our butts whipped all over this field, and we're 22-4 since that night.
"I cannot tell you how proud I am of our football team and our staff. They found a way tonight. This was a great blessing to have the opportunity to come back to the Orange Bowl. To see our guys play like a family, love each other, pick each other up - you don't win as individuals.
"We're the first team from the state of South Carolina to win a BCS bowl game. It was a great, great win for Clemson football, and the best is yet to come."
An entertaining and eventful first half ended with the Tigers trailing 22-20, and wondering how they came to be on the short end of the scoreboard.
Clemson rolled up an early 321-105 yardage advantage, got a pair of touchdown passes and a career-long 49-yard touchdown run by Boyd, sacked OSU's Miller three times, recorded five tackles for loss, and slammed the door three times with three-and-outs.
But Boyd also took an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety and threw a costly and an ill-advised interception when he attempted to flip the ball over an OSU defender to Watkins at the goal line.
Both teams missed first-half PATs, with Chandler Catanzaro banging his attempt off the left upright after Clemson's third touchdown, and OSU's Drew Basil having a kick blocked by the middle of the Tigers' defensive line.
The teams traded quarterback inflicted blows to open the game.
The Tigers won the toss, took the football, converted a third-and-seven with a 15-yard pass from Boyd to Rod McDowell, and then faced another third-down play from just inside the Ohio State side of midfield after C.J. Davidson and McDowell picked up eight yards on inside runs.
On third and two, Boyd kept on a left-side read option, sprinted through a massive hole opened by Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley, and outran Ohio State's pursuit for a 49-yard touchdown. It was the longest rush of Boyd's career by 22 yards.
The Buckeyes answered, with some help from the Tigers.
On a third-and-six play from the OSU 40, Vic Beasley chased down Miller and sacked him for a 17-yard loss. Beasley's emotional demonstration after the play was flagged as taunting, however, and the Tigers were penalized 15 yards, giving the Buckeyes an automatic first down. OSU got another five yards when the Clemson bench was penalized for sideline interference.
Ohio State then converted a fourth-and-two fake punt at midfield, and several plays later, Miller sprinted 33 yards for the tying touchdown.
The Tigers struck back immediately. Boyd hit Watkins for a 27-yard gain from the 25, and, after an eight-yard run by C.J. Davidson, delivered a 34-yard touchdown pass to Watkins, who ran past freshman safety Vonn Bell.
Ohio State advanced into Clemson territory, but three straight defensive plays by Anthony - a pair of tackles and a PBU bat-down - forced the Buckeyes to punt from the Clemson 41. Defensive back Armani Reeves downed the punt near the goal line, setting up Ohio State's safety, when Boyd was forced to throw the ball away under pressure.
Clemson got three-and-out stops on Ohio State's next two possessions, took the ball at its own 31 after a Buckeye punt, and threatened when Boyd beat a corner blitz with a throw to freshman tight end Jordan Leggett for a 43-yard gain.
On third-and-three from the OSU six, Boyd rolled to his right, started to run, and, as he approached the first-down marker, attempted to flip the ball over Bell to Watkins in the end zone. Bell leaped, one-handed the ball and pulled it down for an interception, leaving the Tigers empty-handed and clinging to a 14-9 lead.
Another defensive three-and-out put the Clemson offense in business again, and this time the Tigers cashed in. Watkins sprinted 29 yards on a jet sweep on the opening play of the drive, and then, after a personal foul penalty set the Tigers back to first-and-20, moved into scoring position when Boyd picked up another corner blitz and passed to Martavis Bryant for a 22-yard gain to the Ohio State 22.
Boyd scooted 15 yards on the next play for a first-and-goal at the seven, and two plays later lofted a pass to Bryant, who snared the ball over Reeves for a touchdown.
Ohio State retaliated with a 57-yard touchdown pass from Miller to tight end Jeff Heureman, and then got the ball back with 1:09 remaining after stopping McDowell just short of the first down marker on a fourth-and-five play from the OSU 40.
The Buckeyes made the most of their opportunity. Miller picked up first downs with throws to Philly Brown and Heureman, and then, after a 15-yard personal foul penalty against Clemson's Darius Robinson, found Brown open behind a confused Jayron Kearse for a 24-yard gain and a first-and-goal at the three. Miller ran the final three yards for the touchdown, after breaking a tackle attempt by Kearse in the backfield.
The Tigers finished the first half with a 362-254 yardage advantage, led by Boyd with an even 300 yards of total offense. Watkins caught eight first-half passes for 130 yards.
Ohio State continued its scoring run in the third quarter, again aided by the Tigers.
Starting at their own 13 after an exchange of punts, the Buckeyes moved into Clemson territory via a holding penalty against Breeland and an interference call against Robinson, and then faced a fourth-and-one at the Clemson 32.
Running back Carlos Hyde, who had been kept under wraps by the Tiger defense up to that point, broke through the line of scrimmage, stepped out of a tackle, shrugged off another, and ran 31 yards before being chased down from behind by Kearse at the one.
On the next play, Hyde leaped over the top and into the end zone, and Ohio State pushed its lead to 29-20 and its scoring run to 22-0.
The Tigers had to punt the ball away on their next possession, but got a break when OSU's Brown fumbled the punt-catch and Robert Smith recovered at the Buckeyes' 33.
On third-and-seven from the 30, Boyd rolled to his right and fired deep on the run to Watkins, who snared the ball over cornerback Doran Grant in the end zone for a touchdown that cut the Buckeyes' lead to 29-27.
Three plays later, Clemson had the ball back in OSU territory, after Kearse picked off a pass by Miller, intended for Brown, at the 38.
It took just four plays for the Tigers to regain the lead, as Boyd passed to Watkins for 15 yards, kept for another 15, for a first-and-goal at the eight. After McDowell ran to the three, Boyd lofted a left-side pass for Bryant, who fought off interference by Reeves, stayed with the ball after a carom and secured the ball in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
Next, it was Ohio State's turn.
Aided by another Clemson penalty - a second sideline interference/delay of game call - for a third-down conversion, the Buckeyes moved 72 yards in nine plays. Miller set up the score with a 24-yard wheel route connection with Hyde, and then went back to the running back for a 14-yard throwback touchdown, in which he rolled to his left and fired back across the field to Hyde, uncovered on the right sideline.
Leading 35-34, Ohio State tried for a two-point conversion, but was foiled by Quandon Christian's PBU at the goal line.
The high drama continued when the Tigers got their hands back on the ball.
Clemson took the ball at its 25 and moved swiftly down the field via first-down connections between Boyd, McDowell, Watkins and Stanton Seckinger.
On first down from 16, Boyd kept the ball for a 14-yard gain, but was denied an apparent touchdown when a review determined he had stepped out of bounds at the two.
Clemson failed to punch the ball in on a pair of runs by Boyd, and then took a five-yard penalty on a false start by Isaiah Battle. On third down, Boyd started to his right behind motion by Watkins and threw back across the field to Seckinger, uncovered for the touchdown.
The Tigers, looking to expand their lead to seven, tried a bit of trickery on their two-point conversion attempt, as Watkins took a direct snap and lofted a too-soft pass for Boyd that was tipped from his hands by a Buckeye defender.
Leading 40-35, the Tigers grabbed their chance at victory with their third takeaway of the game, as on third-and-long after a tackle for loss by Corey Crawford, Breeland came from the corner and sacked Miller, knocked the ball loose and Shuey recovered at the OSU 48.