CLEMSON — Trailing Ohio State by two points and 94 yards away from the Fiesta Bowl end zone with a College Football Playoff semifinal game slipping away, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence could have said a lot of things.
“Please, fellas. Can you block just a little bit better this time?”
Lawrence could have tried calming everyone down with trendy perspective. As when Hall of Famer Joe Montana did when gazing into the stands in Miami while huddling the San Francisco 49ers to start a Super Bowl-winning drive against Cincinnati.
“Look. Isn’t that John Candy?” Montana said, pointing to the late comic actor.
Instead, Lawrence perfectly set the tone, fresh from the heart.
“I love you guys,” said the 6-6 sophomore quarterback with the flowing blond locks and glowing football future.
Defending champion Clemson is preparing to face LSU for the national title on Jan. 13 in New Orleans because of action, not words. But words matter and “love” is at the core of Clemson’s four national championship game appearances in five years.
What’s love got to do with it?
“That little phrase,” senior right tackle Tremayne Anchrum said, “embodied what we’re all about.”
Junior wide receiver Amari Rodgers said Lawrence nailed the “bond we have as an offense and as a team.”
Haters will hate, but love works
The last part of the ride to New Orleans took just four plays.
An 11-yard pass to wide receiver Justyn Ross, then Lawrence going over 100 yards rushing for the game with an 11-yard run.
A 38-yard strike to Rodgers put Clemson at the Ohio State 34.
From there, running back Travis Etienne and Lawrence combined on a touchdown play followed by a 2-point conversion pass to Tee Higgins.
Clemson led, 29-23, with 1:49 remaining.
The next Tigers snap was a kneel-down play after safety Nolan Turner sealed the victory with an end zone interception.
“I had no doubt in my mind that we could do it,” senior right guard Gage Cervenka said. “But having that love — that connection — it gives you that little bit extra you need to give. It’s different if you don’t care about that guy next to you.”
Similarly, the sales staff representing a dog food production facility might have a bond.
Folks at every other office might enjoy time spent with each other after work hours.
But Clemson’s on-field credibility serves as cement.
Of course, all this love is another thing for Clemson haters to hate.
It’s only a good story because they won.
Except that the “love” language also surfaces after heartbreaking losses. Let’s go back to where Clemson’s national championship game experience started, on the same Arizona Cardinals field in Glendale, Ariz., where the Tigers just beat Ohio State.
Head coach Dabo Swinney was about to get up to leave a postgame press conference he attended with Deshaun Watson after a 45-40 loss to Alabama on Jan. 11, 2016, when he turned to his quarterback.
Swinney: “I love you.”
Watson: “I love you, too.”
Anchrum, who came to Clemson for the next season, said “brotherly love” has been handed down from players like Watson and former All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins to current veterans, who try to hand it down to newer guys.
“What Trevor said speaks to the chemistry and camaraderie of this team,” Anchrum said. “That’s really the bloodline of this team. We care for each other. We don’t want to let each other down. We want to make each other proud.”
Wilkins, now with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, took Lawrence to breakfast just after veteran quarterback Kelly Bryant left the team with an intention to transfer in September of 2018, making Lawrence the starting quarterback as a freshman.
“You can talk about Xs and Os and all the four- and five-star recruits we have and all that other stuff,” Anchrum said. “But it’s that bond.”
Lawrence and his rocket right arm have improved over the season: 14 touchdown passes and eight interceptions over the first seven games, 22 touchdown passes and zero interceptions over the last seven.
His leadership skills have been just as sharp, with the latest phrase aimed at veteran Clemson players that wanted to play together one last time.
“We’re brothers,” Lawrence said when asked to explain his words in the Fiesta Bowl huddle. “Most of those guys for the last two years have been together. Just having that experience and being in those moments with those guys is really cool. You build that bond throughout the year and it’s really special.”
It took only four plays.
“We just knew that we were going to win before he said that,” Rodgers said. “But when he said that, it just clarified everything. It was like, ‘Alright, we’re locked in.’”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff