***Originally published in December of 2019***
When you hear the words “4th and 16,” what exactly is it that comes to mind?
It’s safe to assume that most fans would say the spectacular pitch and catch from Tajh Boyd to DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins that spring boarded Clemson to an upset win over LSU in the 2012 Chic Fil A Bowl.
Just a season removed from the embarrassing Orange Bowl debacle vs West Virginia, the Tigers came into that game vs LSU huge underdogs. They also came into that game known more for their many choke jobs than they were their ability to win the big games. There was even a term coined by the national media in honor of the Tigers ability to inexplicably drop games to inferior teams, but we won’t mention that here.
Going into that 2012 matchup with the Bayou Bengals, much of the fan base felt uneasy about Clemson’s chances to knock off the SEC heavyweight. It’s hard to imagine even the most optimistic fan feeling overly confident.
However, what happened on the Georgia Dome turf that night was not only a monumental upset, it was the kind of upset that changed the trajectory of the entire program. It also birthed one of this football programs most well known catchphrases, “4th and 16.”
Depending on what day it is, and what kind of mood I’m in that day, hearing those three words could take me back to one of many different places. Maybe it’s Chandler Catanzaro’s clutch game winning FG, and that euphoric disbelief I felt watching it split the uprights as I sat in shock.
Or maybe it takes me back to that sinking feeling of, “Oh no, here we go again,” as I watched Sammy Watkins having to be assisted off the field after going down in the opening series with an ankle injury. I mean, no way the Tigers were going to get it done without him, right?
Or maybe it takes me back to my father. Like me, he gave Clemson little to no shot to win that game. He was so sure about it that he went to sleep before kickoff. I was so sure that I didn’t even bother to wake him up once the game started. I never did. Not even after the 4th & 16 conversion. I still didn’t believe.
Ironically, he woke up during the timeout just before the game winning kick. I remember telling him loudly, “They’re going to win, they’re going to WIN!!!” It’s one of those minor details I’ll never forget. He ended up staying awake most of the night to watch the replay.
The thing that I most associate with those three words though? Tajh Boyd. He turned in one of the most gritty performances that I’ve ever seen from a quarterback. Fair or not, Boyd had been labeled by a portion of the fan base as a QB who couldn’t get it done under pressure.
What Boyd faced that night just happened to be the the most talented defensive front he saw as a Tiger. It seemed like every time Clemson ran an offensive play, it ended with Boyd having to pick himself up off the turf.
He took one hit after the other. These weren’t your every day, run of the mill hits either. Most of these hits were violent, viscous, bone rattling, pick your adjective, kind of hits.
Boyd threw fifty passes that night. He rushed the ball twenty two times. Of those seventy two plays, it seemed like he ended up on the ground at the end of almost every one. Each time he went down, part of me halfway expected him to stay down. Quarterbacks aren’t meant to take that kind of beating.
Boyd took the kind of beating that night most quarterback’s wouldn’t have survived. The kind of beating that is hard to put into words. It might have been the worst beating I’ve seen a quarterback endure in a winning effort, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, that’s what 4th & 16 represents in my eyes.
Not just a single play, but a multitude of things leading up to, and after that single play. Things that catapulted a program from the clutches of mediocrity into the land of the elite. And the things that changed perceptions of one of the best quarterbacks the Clemson program has produced.
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