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Clemson clobbers Ohio State to set up rematch for national championship

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 31: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after scoring a third quarter touchdown during the 2016 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) 686850767
Published Jan. 1, 2017

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Turns out, Tampa's getting more than it bargained for with next week's College Football Playoff champion­ship game.

In addition to the national spotlight, Nick Saban and a nucleus of local competitors, it's getting a novelty.

The first championship game rematch since the dawn of the BCS era.

A Clemson-Alabama encore was sealed Saturday night when a fresh version of desert swarm — a relentless Clemson defensive front — commandeered the Fiesta Bowl in the Tigers' 31-0 embarrassment of Ohio State.

The shutout defeat was the first in Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer's 15 seasons — 194 total games — as a head coach. It also was his most lopsided, edging 31-3 losses to Alabama (during his Florida tenure) in 2005 and '10.

"Man, (the defense) played outstanding," said Tigers receiver and Sickles High alumnus Ray Ray McCloud, who will try to win a national title in his hometown Jan. 9 at Raymond James Stadium. "Like Coach (Dabo) Swinney said, 194 games without having a goose egg on the board for Urban Meyer, that's history right there."

As a result, Swinney, a Crimson Tide alumnus who couldn't keep Saban from winning a fifth national title in last season's CFP title game (a 45-40 'Bama triumph), will try to deny him a sixth. One of Alabama's favorite sons and its favorite sultan, making a curtain call in tandem.

"Honestly, this (rematch) is the game we wanted," Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. "We want our revenge."

"They have been the best, the standard," Swinney said of Alabama. "When you get a first down, you better strike up the band. If you're going to beat the best, you have to beat them. It will be a heck of a ball game in Tampa. Let's get it on."

It figures to be a bit more nip-and-tuck than Saturday's annihilation, staged before a University of Phoenix Stadium crowd of 71,279.

A playoff qualifier despite not even reaching its conference title game, second-ranked Ohio State (11-2) finished with 215 yards — its season-low by 95. It had possession less than 23 minutes and finished 3-of-14 on third down.

"Ohio State's not used to this, I'm not used to this, and we will not get used to this," Meyer said.

Far sharper was Clemson's front four, and its ensemble defensive effort in general.

"Really indescribable," Swinney said.

The No. 3 Tigers (13-1), third in Division I-A in tackles for loss (8.6 per game) entering the night, notched 11, with the linemen accounting for all three Tigers sacks. Freshman Clelin Ferrell, the bantamweight of the behemoth group at 265 pounds, had three of the tackles for loss.

Then there was 305-pound tackle Carlos Watkins, who provided a grim microcosm of the Buckeyes' bleak night on consecutive plays in the second quarter. First, Watkins bore through a Buckeyes double-team to sack J.T. Barrett (19-of-33, 127 yards, two interceptions), then batted a Barrett pass on third and 3.

"I woke up this morning, man, I was like, 'I've just got a really good feeling,' " Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.

"We went to our morning meeting … and our guys, man, the way they were communicating and humming through it, you knew that, 'I don't think we're gonna beat ourselves tonight.' "

Meantime, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson remained effective if not terribly efficient.

Despite throwing two more interceptions (his 16th and 17th of the season), the Heisman Trophy runner-up totaled 316 total yards and three touchdowns (two on the ground). For all intents, Watson sealed things with a 7-yard scramble up the middle on third and 6, giving Clemson a 24-0 lead late in the third.

Free safety Van Smith set up the Tigers' last touchdown, snagging a desperation fourth-down Barrett heave in his end zone and returning it 86 yards. Tailback Wayne Gallman scored from 7 yards two plays later.

"Defense gets all the credit," Watson said. "They are the real MVPs."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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