ATLANTA — Forty-four minutes before the New Year, with two seconds remaining in the game, Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 37-yard field goal inside the Georgia Dome to give Clemson a 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
GAMEBALLDeAndre Hopkins , 6-foot-2, 205 pound junior from Central (Daniel)RECEIVING13 catches, 189 yards, 2 TDsBY THE NUMBERS 0-Turnovers by LSU 3 – Sacks by Malliciah Goodman, career high6- Sacks by Clemson, season best6- 100-yard games by DeAndre Hopkins this season10- LSU's points off of turnovers28 – rushing attempts by Tajh Boyd, a career high223- total yards by LSU
The victory against No. 8 LSU (10-3) was No. 14 Clemson's first win against a ranked team this season. Clemson (11-2) proved it could contend with an elite SEC defense. Clemson proved it could win a physical game against a team that was one play away from playing in the national title game. Clemson proved it might be in line for a special 2013.
“We are at the doorway of greatness,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Sooner or later, you gotta step through it.”
Clemson also demonstrated it can come back.
Clemson trailed at halftime for the first time all season. The Tigers trailed by two possessions midway through the fourth quarter before Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver DeAndre Hopkins co-authored two key scoring drives.
Boyd hit Hopkins with a 12-yard scoring pass to cap an 11-play, 77-yard drive and cut the LSU lead to 24-22 with 2:47 to play in the game.
After the Clemson defense came up with another stop, Boyd led Clemson on a 10-play, 60-yard drive to set up Catanzaro's field goal attempt.
Boyd completed 36 of 50 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns despite losing star Sammy Watkins to an ankle injury on the second play of the game.
Boyd played courageously, absorbing a number of hits, constantly evading pressure and rushing time after time — 29 rushing attempts — into the heart of the LSU defense.
“Tajh Boyd took a number of shots,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It's amazing he continued to play as well as he did. He was phenomenal. I did not expect his heroic efforts.”
Much like the season opener in the Georgia Dome against Auburn when Clemson was without Watkins, Hopkins picked up the slack.
If it was the final 60 minutes of Hopkins' Clemson career — he is draft eligible and projected to be a second-Hopkins' Clemson career — they were a fine 60 minutes.
Hopkins caught 13 passes for 189 yards, including a 27-yard grab in the second quarter when he displayed the hands, footwork and competitiveness that have allowed him to break numerous single-season and career receiving marks this season. Hopkins capped the drive with an 11-yard scoring catch that cut the LSU lead to 14-13.
A major storyline of the week was if Clemson would be able to physically matchup with LSU, a team that Swinney said was the “most physical” team Clemson played this season.
Clemson coaches said the bowl practice had been the most physical of the five bowl preparations under Swinney, who improved to 2-3 in bowls, and the intense practice sessions appeared to be effective.
Clemson entered with the nation's No. 66 run defense but held a massive LSU offensive line and talented backfield to 11 rushing yards in the first half.
Clemson held LSU to 219 total yards.
Clemson produced a season-best six sacks, including a career-high three by Malliciah Goodman.
“I felt their pass rush was the difference in the game,” Miles said.
Of course there were other breakdowns, like Jeremy Hill's touchdown 57-yard run to open the second half. But the Clemson defense responded by producing three-and-out and three-and-out in the second half and bailing out an offense that had bogged down in the third quarter.
It was a perception-changing effort. A new identity for a New Year.