National champions, 30 years ago.
Simply embarrassed, this time around.
Clemson allowed 35 points in the second quarter alone, on the way to allowing the most points given up in any bowl game ever played — a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl on Wednesday night. It was the second-most points allowed by any Clemson team ever, topped only by the 74 posted by Alabama on Nov. 14, 1931.
So it wasn’t the worst game Clemson ever played. It only looked that way.
“I’ve never been down in such a deficit like that,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “I don’t know how it got to that point.”
Geno Smith threw for 401 yards and had six touchdown passes for the Mountaineers (10-3), four of them to Tavon Austin — all those stats being Orange Bowl records. And to think: Clemson actually led 17-14 after the first quarter, before giving up 49 of the game’s next 52 points.
“Our players have gotten a taste of where we want this program to consistently be,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I think it’ll be great lessons for us as we move forward and try to continue to build our program.”
Hard as it might be to believe in a game that was so lopsided, but everything seemed to change on one play in the second quarter.
With Clemson down 21-17, Tigers running back Andre Ellington followed a mass of orange-clad blockers on a first-and-goal from the West Virginia 3, lowering his head and closing in on the goal line. A pair of Clemson players raised their arms, making the touchdown signal.
They were right. Premature, and for the wrong team, but right nonetheless.
West Virginia’s Darwin Cook grabbed the ball away from Ellington and took off on what became the longest defensive score in Orange Bowl history, a yard longer than Greg Mather’s 98-yard fumble return for Navy in 1961. And at the end of the play, Cook wound up tackling Obie — the overstuffed orange mascot for the game.
“Our guys felt like they weren’t getting too much credit,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “And they wanted to make a statement in this game.”
The woman inside the mascot costume later said she was fine.
The orange-clad crew on the Clemson sideline couldn’t say the same.
“Huge,” Swinney said. “That was a big, big play.”
Boyd threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers, but had two turnovers late in the first half that led to a pair of West Virginia touchdowns as the Mountaineers took a stunning 49-20 lead at the break. Ellington finished with 116 yards on 10 carries and a score for the Tigers (10-4), the Atlantic Coast Conference champions who finished with losses in four of their last six games.
And now, until September, they’ll have to live with the stigma of being the team that got walloped like no other team in bowl history.
“Next year we’ll have expectations to come here,” Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins said. “We’ll know what to do and what it feels like. We won’t be so uptight and the coaches won’t be so uptight. We’ll know how it feels. We had a great year. ... They won a game. They played great. We didn’t play too good. We’ve got the whole next year to get right.”
Ellington’s first three carries of the night delivered a total of zero yards. His fourth went into the Orange Bowl record books, a 68-yard untouched burst for a touchdown that was the third-longest scoring run in the game’s history.
It was one of the rare times Clemson could celebrate.
Undeterred, West Virginia answered quickly, thanks in large part to a spectacular play by Andrew Buie, who caught a pass from Smith and was tackled at the Clemson 28 by Tigers safety Rashard Hall. Small problem: Hall’s body hit the ground, but Smith’s never did, other than his hand. He rolled off Hall, sprung back to his feet and darted about another 15 yards, helping set up Alston’s first rushing score.
If there was a harbinger of things to come for Clemson, there it was. Everything was going West Virginia’s way.
“Hopefully, we come back here again next year — for the national championship game,” Smith said.
By halftime, that Buie play was all but forgotten. Clemson hadn’t given up 49 points in a game — forget a half — since losing 55-15 to Texas Tech in 2002.
“It was like a virus,” Swinney said.
Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins had touchdown catches for Clemson, which gave up 589 yards and 31 first downs.
Clemson’s return to the Orange Bowl came loaded with symmetry.
The Tigers last played in the game 30 years ago, winning the school’s only national title by beating Nebraska 22-15. And in the month since Clemson won the ACC title, players heard plenty about both that game and what a return to the Orange Bowl means to the Tigers’ fan base.
But by the time this game was over, virtually all those Clemson fans who made the trip were long gone, into an unseasonably cold South Florida night.
“It won’t be 30 years,” Swinney said. “We’ll be back.”
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