ATLANTA, GA - Talk about responding to adversity. And talk about ringing in the New Year with a bang.
Clemson must have thought it was in for a long night after what could only be called the most inauspicious of starts. Instead, the Tigers showed the mettle to produce one of their most meaningful wins of recent vintage.
Down 24-13 to No. 7 LSU going into the fourth quarter, Dabo Swinney's team came off the mat to score three times in the final stanza against one of the nation's staunchest defenses, and Chandler Catanzaro's 37-yard field goal as time expired lifted his team to a 25-24 victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night at the Georgia Dome.
"This is a landmark win," Swinney said afterward. "An 11th win for the first time in 31 years and only the fourth time ever - 1948, 1978, and 1981. The 2012 team now hitches their saddle up with those three elite teams in our program's history."
After Clemson pulled within two with 2:47 to go on a 12-yard scoring strike from Tajh Boyd to DeAndre Hopkins, it was unable to pull even when Boyd's pass on a two-point attempt fell incomplete.
But the Tiger defense quickly got the ball right back to its offense by forcing a three-and-out with 1:39 to go, and Boyd engineered a drive that covered 60 yards in 10 plays and culminated in Catanzaro's game-winner.
"It was unbelievable," Catanzaro said. "I have to thank the team for setting me up. It seemed like that last drive was meant to be."
Suffice it to say, however, things got off to a rocky start for the 13th-ranked Tigers.
Clemson (11-2) turned the ball over on the second play from scrimmage, as Sammy Watkins was hit by Barkevious Mingo after taking a handoff and fumbled the ball.
Two plays later, the Bayou Bengals (10-3) cashed in. Jeremy Hill burst off tackle and cruised into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead just 55 seconds in.
Making matters worse, Watkins was lost for the night on that opening drive. He was taken to the locker room soon after, and while X-rays on the star wideout's right ankle were negative, he did not return.
"We knew we were going to have some adversity hit us in the face; we just didn't know it was going to be the second play of the game," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "We had a huge game plan built around Sammy too, so we had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and adjusting. But what a great job our guys did of stepping up against an unbelievable defense."
But with things already looking bleak, the ACC Tigers mustered a big-time response against the vaunted LSU defense, marching 75 yards on 11 plays and finding the end zone on an 11-yard run by Boyd to tie the game 7-7.
Clemson also stiffened on defense and recorded four quarterback sacks in the first quarter alone, the most by the ACC Tigers in a quarter this year, and held their SEC counterparts to just 39 yards of total offense in the opening stanza.
LSU jumped back on top early in the second quarter, however, as it capped an eight-play, 65-yard drive with a six-yard pass from Zach Mettenberger to Jarvis Landry and led 14-7.
But later in the quarter, Clemson marched the ball 70 yards on eight plays and found the end zone on an 11-yard bullet from Boyd to Hopkins to make the score 14-13 after Catanzaro's point-after attempt was blocked.
Clemson's defense continued to provide its offense chances, forcing its fourth three-and-out of the first half on the ensuing possession and later coming up with an interception by Travis Blanks.
The Tigers couldn't cash in, however, and Clemson trailed going into halftime for the first time all season despite outgaining LSU 248-106 and rolling up 18 first downs to the Bayou Bengals' six.
As badly as the first half started for Clemson, the second half followed suit. Michael Ford returned the second-half kick 43 yards, and on the next play, Hill rumbled 57 yards to pay dirt for a touchdown and a 21-13 lead just 17 seconds after halftime.
The Bayou Bengals added to their lead with 4:49 left in the third quarter on a 20-yard field goal by Drew Alleman after LSU took over at the Clemson 29 on a fumble.
And by that point, LSU's pass rushers had begun to assert their dominance against a Tiger offensive line that had lost one of its starting tackles, Gifford Timothy, to a knee injury in the first half.
Clemson was held to just 28 total yards in the third quarter, while LSU had 112.
The Tigers of the ACC got their offense back on track on their first drive of the fourth quarter, though, marching the ball 63 yards on 13 plays before being forced to settle for a 26-yard Catanzaro field goal that pulled them back within one score at 24-16.
Clemson's defense continued to do its part and got the ball right back to its offense, as Malliciah Goodman and Grady Jarrett combined for the Tigers' sixth sack of the night - a season high - on third down to force a three-and-out.
Goodman, one of the seniors playing his last game as a Tiger, finished with a career-high three sacks on the night.
"I just had to sell out," Goodman said. "I knew it was my last game. I had to be that senior leader. It felt great out there - great environment, great game, top-10 teams - and it was intense."
The offense took advantage of the opportunity, as Boyd engineered an 11-play, 77-yard drive and hit Hopkins in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard score to make it 24-22 with 2:47 left.
The two-point try failed, but the Tigers' defense once again did its job by forcing a quick three-and-out, and a touchback on the ensuing punt gave Clemson the ball at its own 20 with 1:39 to go in the game.
At that point, Boyd worked his magic, hitting Hopkins for a 26-yard gain on fourth-and-16 to get the drive rolling and eventually completing his last five passes of the game to set up Catanzaro's game-winning kick.
"1:39 is like 10 to 15 minutes to us," Boyd said. "When I saw that clock and that we had three timeouts, I said, 'Let's get it.' It didn't look promising after the first few plays, but it became a special moment."