Clemson’s offensive line has one last challenge: Alabama.
clemson, s.c.» Clemson’s offensive line has conquered challenges all season. Its final one — and perhaps biggest — will come in the national championship game next Monday against Alabama’s dominating defense.
“We’ve always been a question mark around here,” Tigers center Jay Guillermo said.
There certainly will be more questions about the offensive line and the top-ranked Tigers (14-0) leading up to their game in Glendale, Ariz., against the powerful Crimson Tide (13-1), which completely shut down Big Ten champion Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl last week.
No. 2 Alabama held the Spartans to a season-low 239 total yards as linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end Jonathan Allen had their way with Michigan State’s offensive line, combining for four sacks and six tackles for loss.
The Clemson offensive linemen — none of whom were starters before this season — know they have to fare better, even if there are questions whether they actually can.
“People doubt us all the time,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “Nobody believes in this team except these guys.”
Clemson’s offensive line is a group that early on didn’t look like it could anchor a national championship run.
Of the two returning starters from last season, center Ryan Norton was slowed by an injury and tackle Isaiah Battle left the Tigers for the NFL supplemental draft during the summer.
Clemson had to rely on Guillermo, a junior who had given up football last season because of personal issues, to snap the ball to quarterback Deshaun Watson and talented but unproven true freshman Mitch Hyatt to protect Watson’s blind side.
They managed to pass the test 14 consecutive times.
The group, which includes guards Eric Mac Lain and Tyrone Crowder and right tackle Joe Gore, gradually jelled and became the engine that drives Clemson’s relentless offense.
Watson and sophomore tailback Wayne Gallman both surpassed 100 yards on the ground in the 37-17 pounding of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, helping the Tigers finish with 312 yards rushing,
The offensive line helped Watson set a Clemson record for season total yardage (4,731) and Gallman gain the most yards rushing (1,482) in school history.
All five members of the offensive line received honors on one of the three all-Atlantic Coast Conference postseason teams.
Watson, who was coming off a knee injury last offseason, remembers the bond he saw growing among the linemen.
“It was just really during summer workouts, all the stuff they did,” Watson said. “Just hanging out. You could see the relationship building.”
Once the season began, things did not come so quickly.
The Clemson offense was held to 20 points, its lowest total all season, against Louisville in September, then 296 yards, also a season low, one game later against Notre Dame. But the offensive linemen knew they were close to putting things together.
Clemson has had 10 consecutive games of 500 total yards or more on offense, powering to an undefeated season, an ACC title and the chance to try for the program’s first national title since 1981.
“We really had a mentality here of wanting to prove people wrong,” Guillermo said.
Clemson will do that in a big way if it can hold off the Crimson Tide defense, which limited Michigan State to 29 yards rushing.
“We know we’re only going to go as far as our offensive line takes us,” Guillermo said. “It starts with us putting the game on our back. That’s what we want to do.”
Sophomore tailback Wayne Gallman gained 150 of his Clemson-record 1,482 yards rushing this season against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Andy Lyons, Getty Images