The story of the Orange Bowl changed the moment Clemson stuffed Oklahoma's Samaje Perine on fourth-and-one at the 30-yard line in the third quarter, but what happened next confirmed that the Tigers were prepared to take full advantage of the Sooners' demise.
Wayne Gallman took a handoff from Deshaun Watson to the right. Met at the line of scrimmage, he sidestepped a defender to the outside and found room, then squared up another defender and juked inside, finding a crease that allowed him to explode for 21 yards and the first down. One moment, Oklahoma was driving toward the red zone. The next, Gallman carried the Tigers back over midfield, on a play representative of how Oklahoma fell apart. A few plays later, Watson hit Hunter Renfrow for a 35-yard touchdown. Clemson never looked back.
Watson earned Orange Bowl offensive player of the game honors, and there is no strong argument against it. He beat Oklahoma in multiple ways, and he's Clemson's most valuable player whenever he steps on the field. In the national championship game, he'll be the best player in University of Phoenix Stadium.
But Gallman's running down the stretch fueled Clemson.
The overlooked Clemson sophomore running back took over the game in the second half, spurring the Tigers' run to the national title game. At halftime, with the Tigers trailing by a point, Gallman had a mere seven carries for 39 yards. In the second half, which Clemson won 21-0, Gallman carried the ball 19 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the foundation of the offense as he repeatedly gashed the Sooners in the 37-17 playoff semifinal win to earn a spot in Monday's national title game vs. Alabama.
"I hope he's starting to get a little bit of that credit because he deserves it," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said after the game. "He's been as big of a factor for our offense as Deshaun."
Perhaps that's overstating things a bit, but Gallman has indeed emerged as a star himself, setting Clemson's single-season rushing record. In 13 games (he sat out against Wake Forest), he has 269 carries for 1,482 yards and 12 touchdowns and 18 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. He has rushed for over 100 yards in six of the last seven games he has appeared in. He scored the exclamation-point touchdown in the 23-13 win over Florida State, and he had 255 total yards in the ACC title game against North Carolina.
Gallman had a solid season in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, but he managed only 55 yards in the Russell Athletic Bowl blowout win against Oklahoma and was not a factor in the high-profile games at Georgia and Florida State. He was still a bit of an unknown entering 2015, playing behind a rebuilt offensive line with offensive coordinator Chad Morris gone, alongside the game's biggest rising star quarterback.
"If you watched the [Oklahoma game] last year, he made some plays but he was young," said Tony Elliott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. "So he tried to do a little bit too much. He's grown and matured this year and has an unbelievable skill set. He doesn't mind the work. He wants to be the best in the country. He has that desire. He's got that potential in the future to be one of those guys that's in the conversation."
Gallman is proving to be a perfect complement to Watson, the precision passer who can beat defenses with this running ability, as he did in the Orange Bowl's first half. Gallman has big-play speed and can make plays off the edge, but where he excels most is attacking the defense downhill and successfully navigating traffic. He wore down Oklahoma, with Sooners defenders often grasping at air or failing to bring him down on first contact, a trend that we've seen for much of the season.
Clemson can attack defenses from all angles, with Gallman between the tackles, Watson on the edge and throwing downfield and receivers like Artavis Scott making plays on the perimeter.
"When you have guys executing on such a high level like Wayne and Deshaun were, it just makes our job a heck of a lot easier," guard Eric Mac Lain said. "We know with them back there that we don't have to block perfectly on every single play because they're going to make the right cuts and the right reads to get us in the best position to win. When they're running like that and we can get a lot of movement like we were, it makes the game a lot easier."
With all due respect to Oklahoma and its solid defense, Mac Lain and the Tigers offensive line will find a much steeper challenge in Alabama. In fact, it would be hard to find a bigger challenge in the last decade than this Alabama defensive front, because of the number of highly talented, big and athletic bodies the Tide are capable of rotating in. It's a game that will require all parts of Clemson's offense functioning in perfect harmony, because this isn't the type of game where Gallman can create much space for himself. Alabama's defensive front does not leave any space unoccupied, and it does not make mistakes.
It's what makes Monday such a daunting challenge for Gallman. In the SEC Championship Game and the Cotton Bowl, Alabama allowed 44 yards on 47 rushing attempts (including sacks). Only Georgia -- who had a long Nick Chubb run in garbage time -- and Tennessee have posted over 100 rushing yards against Alabama this season. Everybody else has averaged under three yards per rush.
"Clearly the best that we've seen," Swinney said. "I mean, they're as good as it gets in the country, No. 1 in about everything defensively, but the biggest thing is they just have great depth in their defensive line. They roll them guys in there, play a lot of guys, a bunch of subs, and they all play at a really, really high level. That's why they're a great team."
This is a historically great Alabama run defense, presenting such a substantial matchup problem that Gallman is likely to have a quiet night without much room to run. That's how it goes against the Tide. Alabama stopped Chubb when the game was still a game, and it completely shut down Leonard Fournette.
However, neither team had a quarterback anywhere near as talented as Watson, who can potentially open a game up against Alabama like no other quarterback in college football. Clemson is not going to beat Alabama by lining up and conventionally running straight at the Tide, nor is that what it will try to do. Gallman won't be the No. 1 reason that Clemson moves the ball on Alabama, if it does, but he is equipped to take advantage of whatever room the rest of the offense might open for him. Because of that balance thanks to the presence of Watson, Gallman may stand as good of a chance as anybody this season of finding some semblance of success against the Crimson Tide.
He is one of the best running backs Alabama has seen, as part of the most complete offense it has seen. Whether he does find room to run will go a long way toward determining Clemson's national championship fate.
Watson and the defense's ability to reload are the biggest reasons for Clemson's presence in the national championship game, but Gallman's emergence has given the Tigers a well-rounded attack. He's a back capable of punishing a defense that doesn't pay him enough attention.
Scott said that other schools recruited Gallman as a linebacker, and that he faced a learning curve at Clemson because he did not play in a one-back offense at Grayson High School in Georgia. But after redshirting in 2013 and easing his way into a primary role in 2014, Gallman has begun to make a big name for himself in a sport currently loaded with talented tailbacks.
"He's just a guy that's still really, to be honest with you, learning how to play," Swinney said. "But people are sooner or later going to realize that Wayne Gallman is pretty dang special."
The Orange Bowl should be proof enough, but any level of success on Monday would propel Gallman into an offseason star.