ATLANTA — LSU played the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night like a New Year’s Eve celebrant popping a champagne cork and blowing a noisemaker before midnight arrived.
The Tigers held a seemingly comfortable 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, but managed just 1 yard of offense in the final 15 minutes and wilted under the relentless attacking of Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired to complete a dramatic comeback and give Clemson a 25-24 victory in the Georgia Dome.
Catanzaro’s kick completed a 60-yard drive and a 12-0 fourth-quarter blitz by Clemson.
No. 14 Clemson finished the season 11-2, winning that many games for just the fourth time in school history.
“It’s been 31 years since we’ve won 11 ballgames,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s been a steady progress, and these guys — they fought every frickin’ play. They fought for every patch of grass. They overcame adversity. They played with a lot of love and toughness.”
The defeat dropped No. 9 LSU to 10-3, denying it a third consecutive season with at least 11 victories.
LSU lost for the first time in six appearances in this bowl game and fell to 9-2 in games played in the Georgia Dome.
“We thought we had it wrapped up,” LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “But Clemson’s a great football team. ... I can’t say enough about those guys on the other side.”
Boyd was named the game’s Most Valuable Player on offense after completing 36 of 50 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns. Thirteen of those completions and both touchdowns went to Hopkins, who had 191 receiving yards.
Clemson dominated the game statistically, outgaining LSU (445-219), accumulating 32 first downs to LSU’s nine and possessing the ball for 36 minutes, 21 seconds compared with 23:39 for LSU. Clemson ran 100 plays, LSU 48.
“The reality of it is, one team played a hundred plays on defense and one team played 50,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
Catanzaro kicked a 26-yard field goal with 9:26 left in the game, and Boyd, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, marched his team down the field and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins with 2:46 left in the game.
Still, LSU seemed to have control of the game after Boyd threw an incomplete pass while being pressured on a two-point conversion and Odell Beckham Jr. cleanly fielded a pop-up kickoff by Clemson.
“I liked our chances when we took the ball over,” Miles said. “Get a couple of first downs, run the clock out, the game’s over.”
LSU got off to a good start on first down as Zach Mettenberger completed an 8-yard pass to Kadron Boone, who stepped out of bounds. Mettenberger then threw two incompletions, and Jamie Keehn’s punt went into the end zone, giving Clemson the ball at its 20 with 1:39 left and three timeouts to work with.
“I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to use any of my timeouts (on defense),” Swinney said. “That was huge.”
After two incompletions and a sack by Sam Montgomery, Clemson faced fourth-and-16. But Boyd threw a 26-yard completion to Hopkins at the 40.
Two more completions to Hopkins — for 7 and 13 yards — and a pass interference penalty on LSU safety Eric Reid helped put Catanzaro in range.
“If you want to be remembered, you perform in games like these,” Boyd said. “When the game’s on the line, you don’t go out there and blow it. You go out there and do what you can for your teammates.”
Jeremy Hill rushed 12 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns, giving him an LSU freshman record 11 touchdowns this season. But in the decisive fourth quarter, Hill didn’t touch the ball as LSU ran just six offensive plays.
Mettenberger endured six sacks as he was 14-of-23 passing for 120 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“We had a nice plan,” Miles said, “but we couldn’t execute it because we couldn’t protect our quarterback.”
The LSU defense recovered two Clemson fumbles, which led to 10 points as LSU never trailed until the final play.
LSU had a 14-13 halftime lead even though Clemson had more yards (248-106) and more first downs (18-6).
But LSU set the second-half tone immediately. Michael Ford returned the second-half kickoff 43 yards to the LSU 43. And on the next play, Hill ran 57 yards for a touchdown and a 21-13 lead.
Clemson’s offense was stifled early in the quarter, as its first two possessions yielded a total of minus-3 yards on six plays.
On the first play of Clemson’s third possession of the quarter, Montgomery forced a fumble by Andre Ellington, and Reid recovered the football for LSU at the Clemson 29, leading to a 20-yard Drew Alleman field goal and a 24-13 lead thet LSU took into the fourth quarter.
Clemson dominated the first-half statistics but could not take the lead. On the second play from scrimmage, Barkevious Mingo knocked the ball loose from Sammy Watkins, who suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of the rest of the game, and Craig Loston’s recovery gave LSU the ball at the Clemson 23.
Hill ran for 6 yards and then 17 for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead 55 seconds into the game.
Boyd handled the ball on nine of the 11 plays on Clemson’s next drive, completing all four of his passes for 36 yards and rushing five times for 28 yards. His 11-yard run tied the score.
LSU regained the lead 14-7 early in the second quarter as Mettenberger threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Landry on third-and-4.
Boyd threw a 31-yard completion to Hopkins and followed that with an 11-yard touchdown to Hopkins. Bennie Logan blocked Catanzaro’s extra point, leaving LSU with a 14-13 halftime lead, forcing Clemson to begin the second half with a deficit for the first time this season.
It looked like that block might be huge after Clemson had to try the two-point conversion late and failed.
But LSU gave Boyd one last chance, and that was one too many.
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