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Column: Deshaun Watson, Clemson set up national title rematch with shutout of Ohio State

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Ohio State during the third quarter of the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

It was pretty much a given that Deshaun Watson would make a few mistakes on Saturday night.

An interception or two seemed inevitable for the Clemson quarterback prone to occasional bad decisions and wayward throws this season.

But, once again, Watson proved more than explosive enough to overcome any setbacks, making big plays with both his arm and his legs to lead the No. 2 Tigers past No. 3 Ohio State, 31-0, in a surprisingly one-sided semifinal playoff at the Fiesta Bowl.

“If I throw a pick or make a mistake, I’m not going to shy away,” he said. “I’m going to take my chances, take my shots.”

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The victory cemented his reputation as perhaps the best quarterback in the country, despite what the Heisman Trophy voters might believe. It also set up a rematch of last season’s College Football Playoff championship game against top-ranked Alabama.

Earlier in the day, the Crimson Tide took care of their half of the deal by smothering No. 4 Washington with defense and a relentless ground attack.

“We knew it would be a tough game out there,” Coach Nick Saban said. “I think our defense did a really good job against their explosive, big play receivers and offense that they have, and I’m just really pleased with the way we played together as a team.”

The second semifinal was a bit more unstructured.

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Watson’s first pass of the evening game was intercepted, as was a throw to the end zone a few minutes later. To be fair, his receiver slipped on one pass and the defensive back made a great play on the other.

Still, it was not a promising start against an Ohio State defense that had excelled in takeaways and had returned seven interceptions for touchdowns during the regular season. 

“It’s how you respond,” Coach Dabo Swinney said of his quarterback, the Heisman runner-up. “That’s who he is.”

Watson proceeded undeterred, spreading the ball to a variety of receivers on two early drives that gave his team a 10-0 lead.

Then, midway through the second quarter, the junior ran left, ducking behind a blocker and veering abruptly cross-field with seemingly the entire Ohio State defense in pursuit.

The keeper went for 33 yards and, three snaps later, Watson lofted a perfect pass to C.J. Fuller for a 30-yard touchdown that made the score 17-0 at halftime.

A rocky start had turned into an MVP night with Watson on his way to completing 23 of 36 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for 57 yards and two more scores. 

Coming into this game, Ohio State was supposed to have the formidable defense, but it was Clemson’s pass rush that created most of the havoc, with scary-fast freshman Clelin Ferrell and senior Carlos Watkins harassing quarterback J.T. Barrett throughout the night.

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“Very disruptive,” said Barrett, who finished with only 127 yards passing and minus-two on the ground. “We just didn’t execute.”

It did not help that guard Michael Jordan was hobbled early in the game, weakening an offensive line that has been up and down this season. Or that kicker Tyler Durbin missed two field-goal attempts in the first half.

Clemson would ultimately hold the nation’s third-ranked team to 215 yards on offense and only nine first downs — two of those by penalty.

“Ohio State is not used to this,” Coach Urban Meyer said. “I’m not used to this.”

The Buckeyes caught a break early in the second half when they fumbled the ball away and Clemson botched a subsequent field-goal attempt that would have widened the lead.

It did not matter.

Watson finished a late third-quarter drive by running for seven yards and a touchdown, all but putting things out of reach at 24-0. Barrett responded by throwing his first of two interceptions on the night.

After a late touchdown finished the scoring, the Tigers began looking forward to next week’s title game in Tampa, Fla.

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“That’s the game we’ve been wanting to play,” linebacker Ben Boulware said. “We’re ready for that matchup.”

The last time around, the score was tied in the fourth quarter when Alabama called an onside kick and recovered at midfield. The risky play led to a 45-40 victory for the Crimson Tide.

Clemson has had a chip on its shoulder since then. This is a team that has won five consecutive bowl games but still seems to feel as if it isn’t considered among college football’s elite.

“There’s only one thing for us to do,” Swinney said. “We have not been able to win it all.”

If Ohio State was supposed to be good on defense, the Crimson Tide figure to be even tougher, ranking at or near the top in a slew of statistical categories.

That puts even more pressure on the Tigers and Watson. Not that you should expect him to be bothered about it.

“I feel like the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward,” he said. “I have guts.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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