ATLANTA — Anybody who said they saw this coming was lying or naive.
Nothing about Clemson’s 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl fit any wisp of fantasy or twist of logic.
Clemson needed to be nearly perfect Saturday night and wasn’t. Yet on this New Year’s Eve in the Georgia Dome, Clemson was better.
Displaying defiant courage in the face of LSU’s brutal defense, junior quarterback Tajh Boyd ran for one touchdown, passed for two others and orchestrated a 60-yard drive for the game-winning field goal as time expired, a 37-yarder by Chandler Catanzaro.
In an unscientific poll before the holidays, Boyd couldn’t find anybody outside Clemson picking his team.
Could it be any better than this?
“Besides winning a national championship, I don’t think it can,” Boyd said. “Not in this fashion, not on the stage it happened on and with the odds against us.”
Favored by six points, LSU came into the game eighth nationally in total defense (296.2 yards per game), 11th in scoring defense (16.9 points) and allowed more than 22 points only once all season.
Clemson (11-2) totaled 445 yards.
LSU (10-3) allowed more than 200 passing yards in only four games. Boyd completed 36 of 50 passes — both career highs —- for 346 yards. DeAndre Hopkins caught 13 passes for 191 yards. Boyd was named the game’s offensive MVP after engineering a fourth-quarter rally to overcome an 11-point LSU lead.
“For us, it’s just staying composed,” Boyd said. “The defense played a helluva game. They kept giving us opportunities.”
After a season under first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ system, the Clemson defense discovered a pass rush that was missing in action much of the year, registering a season-high six sacks. LSU was limited to 219 total yards, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed 14 of 23 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. Freshman running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 124 yards and was voted the MVP initially.
Boyd trumped him in the final two possessions on the same field it opened its season with a win over Auburn.
“At the beginning of the season, we had to grow up in the system,” said linebacker Jonathan Willard. “I think we grew up today.”
Actually, Clemson recovered nicely after its fate seemed cast in the game’s first minute and trailed at halftime for the only time this season, 14-13.
On the second play from scrimmage, LSU end Barkevious Mingo split Sammy Watkins with a waist-high tackle. The ball was knocked loose, and Craig Loston recovered at the Clemson 23.
Helped from the field, Watkins sustained an ankle injury that ended his season. It was a huge blow because, as offensive coordinator Chad Morris explained, Watkins was originally a huge part of the game plan.
“We knew we were going to have some adversity hit us in the face,” Morris said. “We just didn’t know it was going to hit us the second play of the game.
“We had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and adjusting, but what a great job our guys did stepping up.”
Clemson also lost right tackle Giff Timothy near the end of the second quarter. We knew what caliber of defense we were facing, and we knew it was going to take every down, every bit of effort we had to get this going.”
Tempo was critical, both pre-snap and once the ball was in play. Morris said they intended to get it off quickly. Clemson snapped the ball 100 times, and LSU players cramped frequently during the second half.
“I thought tempo was a big advantage for us tonight,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to hold the ball long. We were going to take some chances on some shots.”
The biggest play of the night was a fourth-and-16 in the final minute at the Clemson 14, following a sack by South Carolina native Sam Montgomery. Boyd hit Hopkins for 26 yards.
“Fourth-and-16, my frickin’ quarterback mans up and makes plays,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s awesome.”
Boyd and Hopkins connected three more times in the drive to set up Catanzaro’s second field goal in the comeback.
“In a situation when a team needs you, you’ve got to step up,” Boyd said. “There are two things you can do: Step up or back down. It’s never been in my nature or any of the guys on this team.
“I know things haven’t gone completely the way we wanted this season. We had a chance to come out here and show the country what type of team we are.”
Swinney spoke to his team for nearly 40 minutes after the postgame on-the-field revelry. Clemson, with an 11th win, came within one of tying the school record set during the 1981 national championship season.
“Sorry it took a while,” Swinney said when he finally emerged from the locker room. “Thirty-one years since we had a celebration like that.”
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