There were plenty of star-worthy performances in an instant classic of an Orange Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State but junior wideout Sammy Watkins shined brightest with a record-setting performance in the Tigers' heart-stopping 40-35 victory.
Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, demonstrating the agility, acceleration and strong hands which has earned him NFLDraftScout.com's top spot among potentially NFL draft-eligible receivers.
With Ohio State's star cornerback Bradley Roby unable to suit up due to a bone bruise suffered against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game, Watkins was expected to perform well. He did more than that. Watkins dominated.
A more dynamic athlete than former teammate and Houston Texans' 2013 first round pick DeAndre Hopkins, Watkins caught his passes on a variety of routes, including quick screens to take advantage of his ability to make defenders miss in close quarters, deep passes due to his acceleration and jump balls to highlight his leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.
Watkins' first touchdown was actually one of his easiest receptions of the night. Lining up in the slot, he took off on a deep vertical down the middle, hauling in a well thrown pass from Boyd to give the Tigers a 14-7 lead in the first quarter.
His third quarter touchdown also came after lining up in the slot. As he ran down the field, however, Watkins slipped outside, saw Boyd's pass was short and leaped into the air, snatching the pass at its highest point to steal away any chance of Ohio State's Doran Grant knocking the ball free.
Watkins was at his best catching screens, where his extraordinary burst made him a constant threat to turn a short pass into a long gain.
Every college football team in the country uses screen passes to get the ball into the hands of their top playmaker in space. Most teams rely on blocking to free their athlete. Watkins showcased the vision to follow his blockers when they were in position but rather than wait, he often simply caught and ran in one fluid motion, consistently catching a fast Ohio State defense flat-footed. This wasn't a demonstration of lethargy or poor coaching by the Buckeyes, instead it was a lesson for scouts that Watkins' engine has a nitro burst.
The third-year junior is expected to join USC's Marqise Lee and Texas A&M's Mike Evans in making himself eligible for the 2014 draft soon. Lee announced his intentions to enter the draft Friday night, despite a disappointing junior campaign. Evans, a redshirt sophomore, made his announcement known on Thursday.
While Watkins was the unquestioned star for the Tigers, the beauty of this bowl game was that impressive performances were turned in by each team's top stars. Ohio State rode stars Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde throughout the game. Boyd threw for five touchdowns and ran for another while defenders Vic Beasley and Spencer Shuey were all over field on defense.