Breaking Down the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl

A healthy dose of history highlighted the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl, played in Orlando on Dec. 29 and hosted by Florida Citrus Sports.

Clemson ended a memorable week with a 20-13 win over Iowa State in Camping World Stadium, a game and experience that had both coaches raving.

“The opportunity to bring our football team and our program to Orlando was phenomenal,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “The events, the time, the effort that the leadership put into making this Bowl experience first-class, it was second-to-none.”

“Just really appreciate the Cheez-It Bowl (and) all the people who worked so hard to make this a great experience,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “We had a blast. It was an awesome experience.”

The win gave Swinney 150 in his career, and gave Clemson its 10th win of the season. That made the Tigers just the third program in FBS history with at least 10 wins in 11 consecutive seasons – a remarkable achievement and a testament to consistency. Only Clemson, Alabama (2008-present) and Florida State (1987-2000) have achieved that feat.

“That’s not easy to do,” said Swinney, who took over as coach in 2009. “That’s what we set out to do back in 2009 – to become a consistent winning program. Not going to win the National Championship every year. We’re not going to win the league every year, and we are not going to the playoff every year.

“But if we can be a consistent program on and off the field, then we’ll have those special moments.”

Swinney was given a Cheez-It bath with 23 seconds left in the game, one of the individual quirks that game organizers initiated to recognize the title sponsor. Swinney no doubt preferred that to a bucket of Gatorade on a night when temperatures were in the mid-50s.

All Bowl games are a reward to teams for the work put in during the season. The 2021 game in Camping World Stadium featured the first ever between these two teams.

It was Clemson’s second appearance in the bowl game under Swinney. The Tigers beat Oklahoma 40-6 in 2014, a game that Clemson supporters believe catapulted the team to further success. In the next five seasons, the Tigers lost just five games and played in four national championship games, winning two.

Iowa State was playing in the Cheez-It Bowl for the second time in three years. The Cyclones lost to Notre Dame in the 2019 game. The seven-point loss to Clemson was the second-closest margin of victory in the last nine years.

“I think we’ll continue to take the lessons we’ve learned and obviously grow from it,” Campbell said. “But who we are, where we are, and what we are about right now, I’m really proud of.”

The game was close throughout. Clemson had to hold off a late Iowa State charge. Both teams only scored on field goals in the first half, which ended with Clemson leading 6-3. But in the third quarter, Clemson scored two touchdowns in 53 seconds, the second on the most bizarre of plays.

The first touchdown came on a Will Shipley 12-yard run. The second came from Clemson’s defense, which was under the guidance of a new coordinator. Brent Venables had left to take over as coach of Oklahoma, and Wes Goodwin stepped in.

On second-and-5 from the Iowa State 15, Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy had a pass knocked into the air. Purdy leaped and batted the ball one-handed, volleyball style, only to see it land in the arms of Clemson cornerback Mario Goodrich at the 18. He raced across the field to his right to reach the front corner of the end zone and give the Tigers a 20-6 lead.

One play did not diminish Campbell’s feelings for his four-year starter, who threw for 12,170 yards and 83 touchdowns in his 48 games with the Cyclones. Purdy was a key part of continuing a turnaround started by Campbell in 2017, when the Cyclones had their first winning season since 2009. In Purdy’s four seasons with Campbell, Iowa State won 31 games.

“It’s thank you for all you’ve done,” Campbell said. “Thank you for how you’ve led, and thank you for giving belief to this football program that has not been there for a long time.”

Iowa State cut the lead to a touchdown with 9:42 left and had the ball at its 36-yard-line, facing fourth-and-2 in the final minute. Purdy ran and picked up the first down, but Goodrich came up with another play, knocking the ball loose and back behind the yard-to-gain. Purdy recovered, but wound up not making the first down.

The two defensive plays led to Goodrich being named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

“Really proud of Mario,” Swinney said. “I was talking to the team about Mario a week or so ago, because he didn’t get off to a good start. Like a lot of 18-year-olds, a little immature, not quite as focused, a little distracted, in my office a couple times when he didn’t need to be in my office. Got my foot in his rear a few times and … you know — but you don’t know what you don’t know.

“And now, here he is. First Team All-Conference. Had his best semester academically in his whole career, 3.46 GPA in the fall. He was voted team captain by his team. Going to the Senior Bowl. That’s what is great about coaching, is seeing transformation, seeing young men buy in.”

Swinney pointed out the Tigers were without 28 scholarship players in the Bowl game, 19 because of injury. Four defensive starters missed all or part of the game.

“This team’s journey was full of adversity and we probably had more adversity this year than the last seven combined,” said Swinney, who heard plenty of criticism when Clemson started 2-2. “What made it great was how everybody in the whole program (responded). The thing that never flinched was the leadership.

“This was a complete program effort.”

Swinney joins a group of only 15 NCAA FBS head coaches to reach 150 wins in 200 games or less. Swinney accomplished the feat in 186 games, the sixth-quickest among the 15 coaches.

“I really can’t process that, to be honest with you,” Swinney said. “But it’s not about me. I mean, I’ve got 150 wins because of a bunch of great players, a bunch of great coaches, a bunch of great people and the good Lord.

“I try to do my part, but I can tell you this, I’ve got a lot of guys on our staff, former players, that were a part of the first win. It was pretty cool to be here tonight and be a part of the 150th win — that was a pretty cool moment.”

The 2021 game was the 32nd edition of a bowl game that started as the Blockbuster Bowl in South Florida. Orlando became its home in 2001, and Cheez-It became the title sponsor in 2020.

That led to some intriguing additions for 2021. There was the “Cheez-It bath” for the winning coach, the introduction of Prince Cheddward as a mascot and a Cheez-it “championship belt” given to the winning team. Tigernet, which follows Clemson football, called the belt “a thing of beauty.” Cheddward dropped into the stadium from the sky in an elaborate pregame ceremony.

Clemson’s trophy was filled with Cheez-Its, some of which Swinney sampled and some he tossed to his players. The quirkiness prompted USA Today to post 11 hilarious photos of Clemson Football celebrating their Cheez-It Bowl win.

The game was clearly the highlight of the week, but Florida Citrus Sports also took care of the teams prior to game night. Outings included a morning trip to Fun Spot America where Day for Kids placed children from the local community with players from both teams.

Other trips included a visit to Universal Orlando and to Top Golf, and a pep rally that featured both teams’ cheerleaders and bands. All led to the ultimate event: The game itself. When it was over, both coaches spoke of their teams with warmth, and touched on what makes bowl games and college football unique.

“This game will live in my head the rest of my life, and that will be something that I’m forever grateful for, because there’s lessons from that,” Campbell said. “I think one of the great lessons that we’ve learned from this group is that life is about the crossroads. And when the crossroads of life come your way, you can either run from it or you can run into it and never back down. And to me, the lessons that they have left over the last four to five years are as powerful as anything I’ve ever been (around). It’s changed and helped guide my own life and what my purpose is, and quite honestly, it’s inspired the future of our football program.”

Swinney said he was as proud of the 2021 team as he was his national champions.

“It’s incredible what they had to deal with this year,” Swinney said. “Then you have criticism and negativity and all that crap, and they never flinched. They kept fighting. They kept the faith, and they finished.”

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