After looking out of the game early, No. 3 Clemson game from down 16-0 to defeat No. 2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal game Saturday in Glendale and return to the National Championship Game to defend its 2019 title and play for its third in four years.
Even down 16-0, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he never doubted his team.
“There was never one second that I did not think we were not going to win the game,” he said. “That's the honest answer. Trevor and I talked about it on the sideline: ‘Man, is this fun or what? I'm not real sure how we're going to win this thing, but we're going to win the game, and it is going to be an epic thing.’”
Clemson will face Heisman winner Joe Burrow and No. 1 Louisiana State Monday, Jan. 13 in New Orleans, about an hour drive from LSU’s campus in Baton Rouge.
Facing by far its toughest test of the season, Clemson looked like it just didn’t measure up early as Ohio State led 16-0. But midway through the second quarter, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Tiger offense came alive and snuck two touchdowns in before the half to cut the lead to 16-14.
“I told them at the half, I thought we took their best punch. I don't think we could have played worse, but we took their best punch, and it was 16-14,” Swinney said.
Clemson took the lead late in the third, but the Buckeyes regained it early in the fourth. Down 2 with under three minutes left and starting at their own 6-yard line, the Tigers needed to drive for at least a field goal to win. After driving to the edge of field goal range, Lawrence faked a quarterback draw and dumped the ball to running back Travis Etienne, who ran for a 34-yard score. A two-point conversion put Clemson up 6 with under two minutes left.
Quarterback Justin Fields and Ohio State marched down to the Tigers’ 23-yard line, threatening to take the lead back and win it before junior safety Nolan Turner picked off Fields in the end zone to seal the victory.
After the game, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said the targeted receiver, sophomore Chris Olave, thought Fields was scrambling and broke from the planned route to try to get open. Fields threw it where he expected Olave to be on the route, but only Turner was waiting there.
“It was the look we wanted,” Fields said “…It was basically just a miscommunication. So that happens in life, and you really can't do anything about it now. Just have to move on.”
Fields had a career-high 320 passing yards along with one touchdown, but his two interceptions are surely the throws that will stick with him. The first interception was by Clemson linebacker and first-team AP All-American Isaiah Simmons.
With the interception, Turner redeemed himself from Ohio State’s last touchdown where Olave beat him on a slant route for a 23-yard touchdown on a surprise pass on a 4th and 2 play.
In a matchup featuring two of the best running backs in the country, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins was the star early, breaking off a 68-yard and 64-yard rush in the first quarter. Dobbins finished with 174 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries and 47 receiving yards on six catches.
Clemson’s offense, and especially running game, were stifled early. It didn’t help that the Tigers were missing their top receiver, Tee Higgins, for most of the first half. Heading into Clemson’s first scoring drive, the Tigers were coming off back-to-back three-and-outs and averaging just 1.8 yards on the ground. From its first scoring drive on, Clemson averaged 7.1 yards per rush.
The running game broke out with the Tigers’ biggest play of the day, a 67-yard touchdown run by Lawrence on a quarterback draw for Clemson’s second score. Lawrence juked two defenders in the open field and then outran the secondary for the score.
Swinney said a large part of the game plan going into the game against the Buckeyes was to incorporate quarterback runs and passes to the running back. Those plays ended up accounting for three of Clemson’s four touchdowns.
Etienne, who entered the game leading the nation with 8.2 yards per carry, was far less efficient than usual, rushing for just 36 yards on 10 carries. Lawrence had a career day on the ground, rushing for 107 yards on 16 carries. He also had 259 passing yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Etienne’s big plays came in the passing game, scoring both of the Tigers’ second-half touchdowns on catches of 53 and 34 yards. He totaled 98 receiving yards on three catches. Etienne also had the Tigers’ first score, an 8-yard rush.
Lawrence’s career high in rushing attempts, carrying the ball more than the second-team All-American Etienne, set up the winning score well.
On Etienne’s 34-yard catch and run, Lawrence initially faked like he would rush for a 17th time, but instead made a leaping short pass to Etienne who had leaked out of the backfield and ran it home for the game-winner.
Lawrence said the play didn’t work well in practice, but they’d set it up so well with quarterback runs Saturday, they had to try it.
“Honestly, I wasn't a big fan of the play in practice, because it's tough if the defense doesn't really bite on it and that safety comes down hard. It takes it away,” Lawrence said. “...So, I didn't feel super confident about it because I didn't have great practice reps at it. It was set up so perfect, we couldn't not run it. So we ran it. Luckily, me and Travis were on the same page and we made a good play.”
Buckeyes are likely wishing this game was played in a time before replay review. Three critical plays were changed due to replay in Clemson's favor.
The momentum swung on a targeting call against Ohio State in the second quarter that extended Clemson’s drive, leading to the Tigers’ first score.
After sophomore Shaun Wade sacked Lawrence on a third-down corner blitz, Clemson was about to punt for a fourth straight drive and was in danger of putting up a goose egg in the first half. However, while it was not called on the field, replay triggered a review of targeting, which was ultimately called. The third-team All-Big Ten corner Wade was ejected and the penalty gave Clemson a first down, leading to its first score.
“We had all of the momentum,” Day said. “...The momentum swung right there.”
In the third quarter, Lawrence completed a pass to sophomore receiver Justyn Ross, who was stripped by Buckeye senior safety Jordan Fuller, who then recovered the fumble and ran it in for a defensive score. However, the call was reversed after replay, changing it to an incomplete catch. Ross seemed to take about three steps with control while being driven backward before dropping the ball, though he never tucked the ball into his body.
When Ohio State was dominating early, it could have really buried Clemson if any of its three red zone trips resulted in touchdowns. Instead, they settled for field goals all three times. They nearly had a touchdown on the second red zone trip, however. Dobbins made a diving catch in the end zone, but review overturned the score, showing the ball came loose when it hit the ground.
“I think when we look back on it, it is going to be overwhelming,” Day said. “Those game-altering plays that happen in a game, you need those things to go beat a team like Clemson where you're playing in a semifinal game. You need those one or two plays. Then to miss a couple of them, that hurts you.”
Another of Clemson's scoring drives was extended by a penalty, though an uncontroversial one. With Clemson punting from deep in its own end, Ohio State roughed the kicker while going all-out for the block. The play drive turned into Lawrence's 53-yard touchdown pass to Etienne.
Stars on each side were limited by injuries.
The most obvious injury led to the absence of Clemson’s top receiver Higgins for most of the first half. Higgins was injured on the Tigers’ first drive when his helmet was knocked off on a deep incomplete pass. He left for the locker room and did not return until the third quarter. Higgins made an impact in the second half, catching four passes for 33 yards and catching a pass to convert the two-point conversion on Clemson’s winning touchdown.
Ohio State’s top playmakers were both hindered by injury. Late in the first half, Dobbins suffered left ankle injury on a rush but walked off under his own power. In the second half, his ankle was taped and he occasionally left the game for short stints when appearing to reaggravate the injury.
Day said Dobbins didn’t seem to run as well after the injury.
“I think it did affect his play a little bit. He didn't have that, like I said, explosion,” Day said.
Dobbins had nine rushes in each half but ran for 142 yards, mainly on his two long runs totaling 132, in the first half and only 32 yards in the second half.
Fields entered the Fiesta Bowl with a nagging knee injury. He said afterward that the injury didn't bother him but his knee brace did a little.
"I felt pretty good going into the game. There really wasn't any pain in my knee, but it was just the knee brace actually being there. But I felt pretty good going in."
Aside from Fields' two second-half interceptions, he was playing some of his best football late. The interceptions bookended a streak where Fields completed 15 of 17 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown.
Fifth-year senior Clemson linebacker Chad Smith waited a long time for his moment, but he showed up on the biggest stage he’s seen so far.
Smith, who didn’t start until this season, had a game-high 12 tackles Saturday, earning him the Defensive MVP of the game.
“How about Chad Smith?” Swinney said. “Fifth-year senior. Never started a game ever at Clemson until this year… He hung in there and kept believing in himself and kept working. Here he is getting MVP on a stage like this tonight. 12 tackles. He's the epitome of what our program is all about.”
Smith said it was a surreal feeling to have the best game of his career on this stage after waiting so long for his chance.
“It is pretty unbelievable. Kind of got to pinch myself,” he said.
Lawrence was awarded the Offensive MVP award.
One of the biggest stars on the field was all but silenced Saturday.
Ohio State junior defensive end Chase Young had 16.5 sacks on the season, came fourth in Heisman voting and won two awards for the best defensive player in the country and one for the best defensive end. Young is expected to be taken second in April’s NFL draft behind LSU’s Burrow or even leap Burrow for the top selection.
Clemson’s O-line bottled up Young Saturday. He had only two tackles, neither of which were for a loss, and hurried the quarterback once. Young’s only other game this year without a sack was at Michigan, but he hurried the quarterback twice in that game.
The bulk of the credit for restraining Young goes to sophomore Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman, who had Young lined up over him for most of the game. Carman is an Ohio native and five-star recruit out of high school but chose Clemson over Ohio State.
The College Football National Championship will feature the last two Fiesta Bowl winners. Clemson will face LSU, who beat Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 1, 2019, in a non-semifinal game.