Backed deep in his own territory to start the second quarter, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had just been through the worst first quarter of his career. After their first four trips into the red zone, the Tigers had only one touchdown to show for it, which came off a short field on a bad punt.
Oklahoma’s defense was putting together the perfect bend-but-don’t-break scheme. But eventually the stress snapped the Sooners.
On the first play of the second quarter, Watson broke a 46-yard run, and before halftime, he had more than 100 yards – the first time that’s happened all season.
By the time the second half started, Oklahoma’s defense was gassed – playing without two key players – and unable to stop Clemson, which scored a touchdown on three of its first five drives in the second half.
All-Big 12 cornerback Jordan Thomas couldn’t stop anybody. Steven Parker’s gamble turned into a touchdown. Middle linebacker Frank Shannon was a step slow in place of Jordan Evans, who joined defensive tackle Charles Walker on the sideline in the first half.
Ultimately, too much added up against the Sooners much improved but still lacking defensive unit.
“We knew it was going to be challenging even before the second quarter,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said to reporters after the game. “We knew it was going to be a long day, and we'd have to defend the run better than we did.”
No. 4 Oklahoma (11-2) came into the game having rebounded from last season’s abysmal defensive effort, proving its status as the Big 12’s best defense with stout performances against Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State.
The defense couldn’t stand up against the Clemson offense without any support from its own offense, which scored just one touchdown after the opening drive, went three-straight drives in the first half without a score and didn’t score in the second half.
“I just felt we weren't tackling very well, and that was the biggest factor,” Stoops said. “And then some of the quarterback run play that hurt us, we were out of position and felt like we cleaned that up at halftime, but then Gallman hurts us in the second half with missed tackles, or again, him making us miss him and creating some big plays.”
Clemson, which gained 500 yards for the tenth-straight game, never went more than two possessions without points. The red-zone field goals from the first half turned into touchdowns in the second half.
“That hurt us the most,” Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker said. “You know, and this point, this championship drive, talent doesn't win the game, it's the will. People with the biggest will are going to win the game, and they seemed to just have that edge and that will about them in the second half, and we didn't.”
Coming out fighting
The bad blood between Clemson and Oklahoma became clear when reports surfaced that Tigers’ defensive end Shaq Lawson boarded the Sooners’ bus and talked trashed to the entire Oklahoma roster. The intensity didn’t stop early in the Orange Bowl.
Even without Lawson, who played two series before leaving with a left leg injury, the attitude continued.
“It was chippy,” Oklahoma linebacker Devante Bond said “We had a few chippy games this year, but it was definitely just another one.”
Oklahoma fullback Dimitri Flowers drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that killed a first-half drive. Receiver Sterling Shepard and Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander were flagged for offsetting penalties.
“Penalties hurt us all over the field,” Stoops said. “. . . Way too many and a lot of them critical ones.”
Andrews sets program record
Late in the first half, tight end Mark Andrews gave Oklahoma the lead going in to halftime. Motioning across the formation, Andrews caught a pass in the flat, made one defender miss and dove through two defenders for his seventh touchdown of the season.
It set an Oklahoma record for receiving touchdowns as a freshman. At one point this season, Andrews have five straight touchdown catches without a non-scoring play.
“I'm definitely really happy with the season and going forward I'm very optimistic about what's going to happen,” said Andrews, who will return as the Sooners’ No. 2 receiver next year. “I'm overall content with my season.”
Shepard slowed in final game
Shepard might have hauled in a game-high seven catches for 87 yards, but every yard he gained was hard to come by. Mirrored closely by Alexander, an All-Conference cornerback who is considered a first-round talent, Shepard never caught a pass of more than 27 yards.
“Wasn't really that hard,” Shepard said of the matchup with Alexander after the game.
Working underneath much of the game, Shepard couldn’t keep the Oklahoma offense from stalling in the second half.
Offensive line finally cracks
On Thursday night, the Sooners’ offensive line looked far more like the unit that struggled against Texas than the one that averaged more than 200 yards per game on the ground during the final seven wins of the season.
Oklahoma gained just 67 yards on the ground.
“They absolutely shut our run game down,” Oklahoma center Ty Darlington said. “They did a lot of things. But I felt a lot of it was more a result than us not executing properly than anything they were doing particularly special. We didn't execute the way that we needed to, and that's what it came down to.
“I didn't feel like they just like pushed us around. . . . We didn't run the ball. We didn't run the ball, they did run the ball, so that's the fact of the matter. But I think that it was more -- I think it was because we didn't execute well, and (Thursday) they were the better team than us.”