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January 1, 2013

Man enough







ATLANTA, Ga. -- There weren't many people who thought Clemson would beat LSU.

And there wasn't a soul in the college football world who thought Clemson would double up LSU in plays (100-48) and yards (445-219) while holding a mighty rushing assault to less than 100 yards.

But funny things happen with this sport. Crazy things. This game would serve as Exhibit A of that irrevocable and refreshing fact.

Just when you think you've figured a team out, just when you think Clemson's 2012 season would be forever tarnished based on soul-crushing whippings at the hands of two SEC powers in the last two games, you get Clemson 25, LSU 24 in a thriller at the Georgia Dome.

Amazing what can happen when a team spends a month hearing that it's not tough enough, man enough, physical enough, all-of-the-above enough to hang with an established giant that seems to grow talented offensive and defensive linemen on trees.

The season feels a lot different now at 11-2, doesn't it? Those records don't come around often at Clemson, and neither do rankings pushing close to the Top 10. Clemson entered the game at number 14 according to the AP, and its highest final ranking of the last 20 years was No. 16 in 2000.

When last seen on a football field, this Clemson team was walking off the Death Valley field after a devastating 27-17 loss to South Carolina. The Tigers didn't hold up well that night, couldn't move the ball over the final three quarters against an elite defensive front. How in the world were they going to hold up against a better defensive front?

"Everybody thought we were going to go out there and get pushed around," said linebacker Tig Willard. "We're some real men. If somebody tells you that you can't do something, then you want to prove them wrong."

Willard played for a defense that pretty much won this game, and that sounds crazy to say after what we saw from this offense late as Clemson battled back from an 11-point deficit. But this defense was bad for much of the season, couldn't get off the field last time out against South Carolina, and it rose up and shut down an LSU offense that was supposed to roll right over it.

Malliciah Goodman was the embodiment of a defense and an entire team that did things no one expected. The senior fueled an out-of-nowhere effort by a defensive line that was supposed to be too small and to thin to put up much resistance against LSU for four quarters. The Bayou Bengals had nine three-and-outs - including the big one on their final possession -- nine first downs and allowed six sacks.

On the other side of the ball was Tajh Boyd, Nuk Hopkins and a Clemson offense that never relented and never stopped producing big plays in the face of key injuries, withering quarterback pressure, and savage hits all over the field.

They lost Sammy Watkins to an ankle injury on the second play of the game. They lost right tackle Giff Timothy soon thereafter to a knee injury. But in the end, on their final three possessions, they went 63 yards in 13 plays for a field goal. Then 77 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown. Then 60 yards in 10 plays for Chandler Catanzaro's field goal that sent the orange-clad masses into delirium.

For so long in this game, the vibes didn't seem in Clemson's favor even though Clemson wasn't getting blown off the field. Recovering from shattering adversity at the start - LSU promptly bulled for a touchdown after Watkins lost a fumble and suffered the injury - seemed like an accomplishment. Clemson was down just 14-13 at the half, and but for a blocked extra point the score would've been tied.

But LSU took control in the third quarter, and this was looking like a ton of other games in which big, powerful teams gradually take over and pull away from close games. Games such as the one in late November against South Carolina, when the Gamecocks suffocated the Tigers by playing keep-away from their fast-paced offense.

When Andre Ellington lost a fumble in the third quarter and LSU took over at Clemson's 29 with a 21-13 lead, it was over. Or it seemed like it. But then Garry Peters managed to disrupt a slant pass just enough on third-and-goal from the 3, forcing LSU to settle for a field goal that made it 24-13.

Still, it was hard to imagine Clemson winning a game in which it lost two fumbles inside its 30-yard line. LSU has made a living of punishing up-tempo offenses for such mistakes, and there wasn't much reason to think this game would be much different.

Clemson couldn't do anything with the ball on its next possession, and LSU took over late in the third trying to put it away. But then LSU was stuffed on third-and-2 and had to punt. Then Clemson began to get some traction and moved deep into LSU territory before settling for a field goal that made it a one-score game.

Jeremy Hill returned the kickoff 48 yards, putting LSU perilously close to field-goal range. LSU went nowhere, failing to convert a third-and-8 when Goodman crashed through and beat two guys to sack Zach Mettenberger.

Clemson battled back once again, with Adam Humphries flicking to Ellington for a big gain on a razzle-dazzle, then Boyd finding Brandon Ford for 20 on third-and-11, then Boyd finding Hopkins on a second read behind two defenders who were supposed to be covering him. The 12-yard touchdown strike made it 24-22, and that's where it stood after the two-point try was unsuccessful.

When Clemson pooch kicked it to give LSU the ball at the 39 and Mettenberger threw for 8 yards on first down, it felt like LSU was finally going to salt it away. But then, on second-and-2, Mettenberger threw it over the head of a wide-open Jarvis Landry on a rollout. Then Goodman crashed in once again and tipped a pass on third down, and Clemson fans began to believe. If Swinney erred by pooching it instead of kicking it deep, then Les Miles was returning the favor by throwing and allowing Clemson to save all three of its timeouts.

But then, after Clemson took over at its 20 with 1:39 left, it was beginning to melt away. Hopkins dropped a pass on first down. The refs missed a pass interference on a second-down incompletion to Hopkins. And then Sam Montgomery, the kid from Greenwood who talked about taking this game personal against his home-state school, delivered a sack that forced Clemson to stare at a fourth-and-16 from its 14.

And that's when Boyd found Hopkins down the right seam, threading a perfect throw just behind Eric Reid and just in front of Tharold Simon for a 26-yard gain that put the ball at the Clemson 40.

There was still work to do, still yardage to pull into range for Cantanzaro to hand LSU its third loss to a non-SEC team in the last 10 years.

But at that point, everyone in the building and everyone in the college football world probably believed Clemson was going to win.

Even after they all - we all -- spent a month believing Clemson had no chance at winning.

Or, at least, winning this way.

"Nobody gave us a chance," Boyd said. "We really didn't have anything to lose, technically. But we felt like we were a better team on film and on paper. Nobody else saw it, so it was left to us to go out there and perform."

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