MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The signs were there. Despite Oklahoma actually leading No. 1-ranked Clemson at halftime in the Capital One Orange Bowl, there was a feeling of trepidation.
The second 30 minutes showed why OU fans had every right to worry as the Tigers beat up the Sooners on the ground and then on the scoreboard as OU fell 37-17 in the college football playoff semifinal Thursday evening at Sun Life Stadium in front of 67,615 fans mostly wearing orange for Clemson.
In OU’s only other loss this season, it happened in the trenches. When the Sooners were taken out by Texas in the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns rushed for 313 yards and OU rushed for 67.
Against the Tigers, Clemson amassed 312 rushing yards, and yea, OU once again could only muster 67 yards on the ground, averaging a mere two yards per carry.
“Well, I just felt we weren't tackling very well, and that was the biggest factor,” head coach Bob 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 (Wayne) Gallman hurts us in the second half with missed tackles, or again, him making us miss him and creating some big plays.”
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson only completed a shade over 50 percent of his passes, but he showed why he was a Heisman contender with his ability to run the ball.
Watson rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown, while Gallman rushed for 111 of his 150 yards in the second half and two more scores. When it was all said and done, the Tigers averaged 5.4 yards per carry and cemented their spot in the national championship game.
The Sooners wanted Clemson, especially coming off of the embarrassing 40-6 defeat to the Tigers last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl. This was the last leg of their revenge tour. But when it came down to it, the physicality of Clemson that was too much in Orlando last year was still too much for the Sooners at Sun Life Stadium.
“It’s just simple that we just didn’t tackle,” senior linebacker Eric Striker said. “Like I said, guys were in position to make the play. That was difficult. That’s what hurt the most is being in position and just not finishing the play.”
It wasn’t just OU’s defense being unable to contain the Tigers, but the same was true with OU not being able to penetrate the Clemson defensive front.
Sophomore running back Samaje Perine rushed for 40 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter but only ended up with 58 yards on 15 carries. Both Perine and redshirt freshman Joe Mixon didn’t finish the game, banged up with separate injuries.
The key to the Sooners and their seven-game winning streak was the run game. OU averaged just under 300 yards per game. Without their big guns 100 percent healthy, the game took on a different feel and the Sooners could never get back on track.
“A lot. A lot,” said Perine about injuries hampering offensive calls. “We were already thin at the running back position. We had to play as safe as possible but still play as aggressive as we always do. They got the best of us tonight. Clemson’s defense came out ready to play. They were flying around.”
Throughout the season, quarterback Baker Mayfield always had the answer. This time around, though, he didn’t. Mayfield threw for 311 yards and a touchdown, but he was also sacked five times and threw two interceptions.
The second interception ended his season as he took a knee to the head in trying to make the tackle and was understandably not available to the media for interviews following the game.
The 21-0 onslaught by Clemson in the second half certainly puts a damper on the season, one in which the Sooners were seemingly one year ahead of schedule.
OU ends at 11-2 with its ninth Big 12 conference championship and became the first Big 12 team to reach the college football playoff.
The goal from Eric Striker was to go out a winner following last year’s loss to the Tigers. It didn’t quite end up that way for OU, but it was one heck of a run by the Sooners and for the Class of 2012 in 2015.
“It's real tough,” senior wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “Everything this team has been through and has overcome, it's real tough but I'm proud of this team just because of all of that, just because of all we've been through and always fought through and getting this team up to one of the top-tier programs. It's not a good deal that we didn't get to get it done tonight but ultimately I'm proud of them.”