MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - It's not the turnovers. It's what happens after them.
The damning stat was published leading up to the Orange Bowl: in 10 Clemson victories, the Tigers allowed 17 points off turnovers, but in just 2 losses, the Tigers allowed 45 points off turnovers.
"Responding to adversity. Can't coach that," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "You try to foster and nourish that tough mind, and we do that. But the guys have the willingness to go out and do that."
They sure did Friday night. The Tigers gave it up twice, both Tajh Boyd interceptions, which resulted in zero Ohio State points. On the other hand, OSU committed four turnovers, which Clemson turned into two touchdowns, flipping a 9-point deficit into a 34-29 lead. The Tigers hung on for a 40-35 victory.
"That's what it's about. It's being able to step up when you need to," senior linebacker Spencer Shuey, who made his first career interception in his 49th and final game.
Boyd made a foolish decision with a 14-9 edge early in the second quarter, trying a shot-put-style flip pass to Sammy Watkins in the red zone when he could have simply run out of bounds to set up a 1st-and-goal.
"Tajh just made an impulse decision right down there," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "Had a first down, just get down, we get in and score. Those things frustrate you."
How did Clemson's defense respond? A quick 3-and-out, giving Clemson the ball right back. The Tigers punched in a touchdown on their next drive.
Boyd made an even more foolish decision with 1:27 remaining in the game, on 3rd-and-13 at midfield. Instead of doing as his coach instructed, Boyd couldn't help but go to a relatively wide-open Germone Hopper, but he threw behind Hopper and got intercepted, giving the Buckeyes one last gasp down five points.
"We had a quarterback draw called," Morris said. "Last thing we told him, Tajh, don't throw the football. Don't throw the football. It's yours all the way. You keep it. I ain't taking it out of your hands. He saw him wide open, overthrew him. We hated that, but we got a saying around here: we don't make things easy."
How did Clemson's defense respond? Two plays later, linebacker Stephone Anthony picked off Braxton Miller, sending Clemson fans in the stadium and watching on television into a frenzy with the game-sealing play.
"Sideline was awesome tonight facing adversity - some of it self-inflicted, some of it (Ohio State)," Venables said. "But our guys never really flinched, stuck together, believed they would make the plays to win and they did."
After getting gashed for touchdown drives of 75, 85, 79 and 87 yards in the first two and a half quarters, Clemson's defense forced turnovers on three of OSU's final four drives.
"That was great, man. That was big," safety Robert Smith said. "The first half wasn't so great. We gave up a lot of big plays. But we just went in that locker room, coach chewed us out, and we knew we had to go out there and make some more plays and win the turnover margin.
"Coach is big on winning the turnover margin, and everything else will take care of itself."
Even the safety Clemson suffered yielded a gut-check performance from the defense: Boyd was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, and a chop block pushed the free kick backwards, so OSU had excellent field position on its next drive (its own 46-yard-line.)
How did Clemson's defense respond? Another three-and-out, and the Buckeyes went 11 yards backwards on the drive.
"Our offense was struggling a little bit, and we were able to step up, get some plays," Shuey said. "We gave up some scores, and they stepped up and responded right away. That's what's playing a team game's all about."
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