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Clemson's Higgins, back after mysterious Fiesta Bowl injury, aims for big national title game

CFP Fiesta Bowl Football

Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins, right, is tackled by Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

CLEMSON — Tee Higgins emerged from the injury tent Dec. 28 with a white towel draped on his head, his helmet seemingly shed for good. A trainer's hand on his back, the star wide receiver shuffled to the Clemson locker room as teammates offered handshakes.

The team still had a College Football Playoff semifinal to play, but an air of finality washed over the team in the first half of the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State: Was this it for Higgins?

The junior had come down hard on Clemson's fourth play, his helmet popping off amid a collision with two Buckeyes defensive backs on the sideline. Shortly after he retreated for the back, the ESPN broadcast reported he had been ruled out for the remainder of the game.

But then, as the second half started, there was Higgins, helmet on and catching passes. He played the rest of the second half of Clemson's 29-23 win, creating confusion as to his status. Afterward he was short, insisting that he suffered a "body" injury and that he was "really sore."

Higgins on Monday was again coy, insisting he "can't really remember," what kind of injury he sustained but that he's ready for Clemson's national championship game against LSU on Jan. 13.

"I got banged up," he said. "They was making sure that I'd be fine. I tried to go back in earlier in the game, but they said just take a break and we'll get you back out there."

Higgins figured to be a big part of Clemson's game plan in the Fiesta Bowl before he went down. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence hit him over the middle for a 21-yard completion on the team's second play, and Lawrence tossed another ball his way two plays later.

Buckeyes defensive end Chase Young jumped over the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped to Lawrence, who dropped back to pass even though his offensive lineman stood locked in position for the broken play. Higgins was in double coverage and the ball slipped off his hands as his helmet got knocked off by Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller. Cornerback Jeff Okudah's helmet made contact with Higgins' unprotected head as both fell to the turf.

Speculation followed that Higgins had suffered a head injury, and the erroneous report he had been ruled out added credence to that theory.

His absence was felt. Without Higgins, who is tied with DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins for the most career touchdown receptions in program history (27), Clemson's normally blistering offense fell cold for much of the first two quarters. Coach Dabo Swinney's team finally scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in the final three minutes of the half.

Higgins, for what it's worth, finished with four catches for 33 yards, with three of those receptions coming after his return. Whatever the issue, it appeared resolved, and he enters the title game with 56 catches for 1,115 yards and 13 touchdown receptions this season. 

His status is good news for Clemson, which will need to keep up with LSU's high-powered offense in the national championship. No defensive remedy for LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner, has been effectively applied this season.

Clemson's best chance at victory might be coming out on top in a shootout. Sophomore wide receiver Justyn Ross, for what it's worth, is confident in Clemson's offensive weapons.

"I have really good faith in our defense," Ross said. "But we're going to have to score points to win this game."

"It's going to be a dogfight," Higgins said. 

Ross said the group didn't to live up its 'Wide Receiver U' billing. Ross was held to six catches on 47 yards; wide receiver Amari Rodgers registered just one catch for 38 yards (though it was on Clemson's late, game-winning drive).

Higgins's presence against LSU will help. And entering what could be his final college game — the junior is rumored to declare for the 2020 NFL draft — he appears healthy after a confounding injury scare.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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