Miami Gardens, Fla. — The play that changed the Orange Bowl has a name: “UConn.” Not because Clemson’s Dabo Swinney stole it from the Huskies housed in Storrs, Conn., though that’s the kind of thing basketball coaches have done forever. Marquette’s Al McGuire called his delay offense “Creighton” because he borrowed it from the Bluejays. Louisville’s Denny Crum called the lob pass to a cutting guard “Marquette” because that team used to hoist alley-oops for the high-rising Doc Rivers. But I digress.
The fake punt was called “UConn” because the improbable receiver of the pass from punter Andy Teasdall is a 315-pound defensive tackle named Christian Wilkins, who hails from Suffield Academy in Connecticut. (He’s actually from Springfield, Mass. Guess “Massachusetts” is too long for a play-call.)
Swinney’s Tigers trailed Oklahoma 7-3 early in the second quarter and were on the verge of wasting Deshaun Watson’s 46-yard gain to midfield. It was fourth-and-4 at the Oklahoma 44. Swinney sent the punting unit on the field. No punt was forthcoming.
Teasdall took the snap and looked downfield. Wilkins, who’d aligned himself in the backfield as the middle of Teasdall’s personal blockers, slipped out in the left flat and kept chugging. When Teasdall hoisted his rainbow of a pass, Wilkins was already 20 yards downfield and, being 315 pounds in a bright orange jersey, wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. But the Sooners hadn’t covered him, and you could understand why. Who covers a defensive tackle 20 yards downfield?
Seeing the play develop in real time, these thoughts flashed through the mind: “That’s too long a throw for a punter … That’s too big a man to catch a ball like that … Oklahoma’s going to have a short field to make it 14-3.” And then: “Oh, my goodness!”
Wilkins caught the ball over his shoulder and, cool as you like, took a few more thudding steps down the sideline before momentum carried him out of bounds. The astonishing 31-yard conversion led in short order to Clemson’s first touchdown. By the time Teasdall actually punted again, his team led 30-17. The Tigers would win 37-17.
Here was Dabo afterward: “We shocked them, didn’t we? Ain’t nobody covering that big ol’ guy. Every Wednesday we’ve got an inventory of plays that we work on and put that in. We actually put it in last year, and it was to Josh Watson, and big Josh is no longer with us, so we kept it in the library. Once we kind of got our punt team settled in, I changed the name up, called it UConn because Christian Wilkins is from Connecticut.
“I told him, ‘Don’t be shocked now because we just practice them all the time and we don’t always call those things,’ but I just felt like it was the right time … Christian did a great job of getting small and skinny and kind of hiding for a 330-pounder. He’s an athletic dude, and Teasdall did an awesome job. He sold it perfectly, set it up just the way it needed to be. He just kind of put it up there just enough, and you saw the athleticism of that big ol’ No. 42 because he khad to find the ball in the air and get himself in position to finish it. It was a great play, and it was a spark we needed. I felt like we were a little stagnant right there, a little tight, and I wanted to send a message to the guys: ‘Listen, we’re here to play, and let’s cut it loose.’ ”
Daring plays like that were why we came to call Steve Spurrier the Evil Genius. Nobody has ever called Dabo, who became a target of Spurrier’s derision, a genius of any kind. But this was an ingenious call. It changed a game going wrong, a game on the sport’s biggest stage.
Further reading: Doubt this. Clemson overpowers Oklahoma.