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Tigers’ seniors finish with perfection, ‘eye of the Tiger’ focus - UpstateToday.com
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Tigers’ seniors finish with perfection, ‘eye of the Tiger’ focus

By Alex Maminakis

The Journal

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In capping off a perfect 15-0 season with a national championship win over Alabama, the Clemson seniors went out on top Monday with a night to remember.

While Clemson’s talented freshmen and underclassmen shined on the biggest stage Monday, as they have all season, the Tigers’ veterans played big roles in the 44-16 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide, and they relished in their accomplishments after the game — from the final moments on the sideline to the postgame confetti.

Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins licks the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy as coach Dabo Swinney and fellow defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell watch after the Tigers’ 44-16 win over top-ranked Alabama on Monday night in Santa Clara, Calif.
Mark McInnis | For The Journal

“It feels like a dream,” said wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who finishes his Clemson career as one of the most storied players in program history. “But that’s something we always talk about … it’s not about the mountaintop experience, it’s about the journey — enjoying the journey. And I feel like we’ve done that this year. This is a great moment — it will come and go, but these relationships all last forever.”

On the defensive side, while Clemson’s defensive line has received the lion’s share of the attention this season, and deservedly so, linebacker Kendall Joseph also chose to return for this season and finish his career at Clemson on his own terms.

He did that Monday night with a win over Alabama, and he said the joy after the victory wasn’t about revenge from last year’s Sugar Bowl loss to the Tide, but more so about ending his college career on a high note.

“Not really a revenge season, but just one last chance to go out the way we wanted to. We definitely did that,” Joseph said with a big smile. “Just seeing that score, man — we dominated. Just happy as hell.”

The title game was a matchup of the two winningest senior classes in major college football history, as Alabama and Clemson entered the contest with 55 and 54 wins over the past four years, respectively. 

The win by Clemson extended its ACC record for a senior class to 55 wins and tied Alabama’s seniors for the most in history.

“For our seniors to be able to go out 15-0 and truly be the best ever — there was a lot of talk about best ever all year long. We were never in that conversation,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But tonight, there’s no doubt. First 15-0 team, to beat Notre Dame and to beat Alabama to do it, this team won 13 games by 20 points or more and led by an unbelievable group of seniors — amazing group. I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”

Like many, Joseph said he didn’t necessarily expect to win in such a dominant fashion over the Tide in the title game, but knew — and he said Swinney gave the team confidence — that the Tigers were capable of doing it.

“A lot of people didn’t expect us to win at all,” Joseph said. “I didn’t predict us winning by that much, but we definitely had the focus to do it. The eye of the Tiger, you could say.”

Clemson offensive line wins the trenches

One of the big questions ahead of Monday’s championship game was whether or not the Clemson offensive line could neutralize the Alabama pass rush.

The Tigers passed the test with flying colors.

“Last year, we got punched in the mouth,” said guard Sean Pollard, referring to last year’s playoff performance against Alabama. “I think this year, we punched them in the mouth.”

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence had noticeable time in the pocket and was well protected by his offensive front in Monday’s win, passing for 347 yards and three touchdowns on his way to offensive MVP honors.

The Crimson Tide didn’t sack Lawrence once and recorded zero quarterback hurries — a major difference from Alabama’s dominance in the trenches last year.

“Our guys have done a great job up front, but there was still a lot of rhetoric going into this game about the biggest mismatch being ‘Bama’s D-line vs. our offensive line,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “And I told those guys today, before we came over here, I said, ‘For us to bury that rhetoric, we’ve got to go out and prove it on the field,’ and that’s exactly what they did tonight. I’m so proud of those guys to be able to protect. 

“You can have all the skill guys and a great quarterback back there, but if you can’t protect — a lot of times, ‘Bama gets to those quarterbacks, so I give those guys a lot of credit.”

While the Tigers’ running game had trouble getting going against Alabama on Monday, rushing for 135 total yards, Clemson didn’t need to rely on running back Travis Etienne and the ground game because of what Lawrence was able to accomplish through the air, and that was thanks to his protection.

“We had to make some adjustments, but really just proud of how we handled everything and really thankful for my O-line,” Lawrence said. “No sacks tonight, and they did an unbelievable job.”

Pollard, a junior, also believes his team’s performance Monday vaults the Tigers into a more prominent national position — even more so than an unbeaten Clemson held entering Monday’s title game — because of how they beat Alabama.

“We’re one of the top dogs in college football now,” he said. “There’s no arguing. You see all the time, all the analysts and everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s just Clemson, they’re riding Alabama’s coattail,’ but I think tonight we proved that we’re just as good.”

Terrell’s interception started it all

On Alabama’s first offensive possession Monday night, just as Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa was getting going for the Crimson Tide offense, it was the Clemson secondary that struck first and set the tone for the game.

Specifically, A.J. Terrell’s 44-yard interception return for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead and the momentum.

“First touchdown of the game — it was a big play,” Terrell said. “I gave the team some juice, some extra added-on energy — we already had some energy — and it was a big play in the game.”

The sophomore cornerback got his third interception of the season, and one that couldn’t have come at a bigger time for the Tigers.

Tagovailoa acknowledged after the game that the pick-six was a bad self-inflicted wound so early in the contest.

“I just think we came out, and we were killing ourselves,” Tagovailoa said. “We shot ourselves in the foot by me throwing that interception for a touchdown, and then not finishing drives the way we wanted to. Just didn’t go the way we wanted to.”

Terrell said it was important for him to help the Tigers grab momentum and confidence so early in the game, and the play went a long way both in the early going and in setting the tone for the contest. 

“I felt like that’s what we needed coming in. To be able to get it early in a game like that, and everybody feeds off it on defense, offense and special teams — it was a big momentum change,” he said.

“I dream of stuff like that.”

alex@upstatetoday.com | (864) 882-2386

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