Needing four yards on fourth down for a chance to put defending national champion Clemson away, Ohio State coach Ryan Day decided to punt the ball back to a golden-locked quarterback who has never lost a college football game.
Trevor Lawrence needed to go 94 yards in three minutes to keep his remarkable unblemished record intact and advance the No. 3 Tigers to their second consecutive title bout. The sophomore quickly took over the offensive huddle from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and told his teammates: “I love all you guys. Let’s go win this thing.”
One minute later, Clemson had used just three plays to arrive at the Ohio State 34-yard line. There, Lawrence got the signal for a clever quarterback-keeper-turned-pass to Travis Etienne, a play the Tigers had not been executing well in practice.
“I didn’t feel super confident about it,” Lawrence said.
Yet, in typical Clemson fashion, the call worked to perfection. Etienne blazed into the end zone for his third touchdown.
On the ensuing drive, Ohio State’s comeback attempt fell flat when a Justin Fields pass sailed into the arms of Clemson safety Nolan Turner, leading to that exceedingly familiar orange-and-white confetti being sprayed into the air when the clock hit zero.
The Tigers won a College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday night that felt every bit like a national championship tilt over the heartbroken Buckeyes, 29-23, in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Proud, sad, but angry too,” Day said.
The Tigers’ reward for winning their 29th in a row? A CFP final match with No. 1 Louisiana State on Jan. 13 in New Orleans’ Superdome in front of tens of thousands of rowdy Cajuns.
Swinney sounded up for it, and, with LSU set as the early betting favorite, he can continue to convince his Tigers that nobody gives them respect.
No. 2 Ohio State whiffed on a prove-it opportunity that was three years in the making. On New Year’s Eve in 2016, Clemson systematically slaughtered the Buckeyes 31-0 inside this same shiny and silver desert orb that’s now called State Farm Stadium. Three days later, Urban Meyer hired Day, then an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, as his co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
It was no secret to Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida and one at Ohio State, that the Buckeyes needed to continue to evolve into a team that might play in the Big Ten Conference but more resemble a Southern program in the way it was built.
Fields, a transfer from Georgia, fit right in with the skill players Ohio State was already collecting from locales outside the Big Ten footprint. The Buckeyes plucked running back J.K. Dobbins and wide receiver Garrett Wilson out of Texas. Receivers Chris Olave (California), K.J. Hill (Arkansas) and Binjimen Victor (Florida) rounded out a core of non-Midwesterners who Woody Hayes never would have believed necessary for Ohio State to have a puncher’s chance against a powerhouse from the South.
So, in the first quarter Saturday, when Dobbins burst through a hole and outran the back end of the Clemson defense for a 68-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 10-0 lead, more meaning was attached to it than one could understand if they didn’t cheer for a traditionally plodding Big Ten school.
Ohio State (13-1) jumped out to a 16-0 lead, but Swinney never allowed Clemson (14-0) to panic. He trusted his players, some of whom had helped the Tigers win two of the last three national titles. Swinney is the first to acknowledge that he doesn’t have to go far to stock his roster with blue-chippers, especially now that the results match the Southern charm.
With five straight trips to the CFP, Clemson has changed the meaning of the verb “Clemsoning” from shrinking in the biggest moments to rising to any occasion. All the Tigers need is a window, and they’ll blow right through it.
That opening came in the second quarter when Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade was called for targeting on Lawrence, extending a drive the Tigers dearly needed.
They’d score a touchdown on a nifty eight-yard cutback run by Etienne, and before too long, the 6-foot-6 Lawrence would be chugging down the field for an improbable 67-yard touchdown run that cut right through the heart of any earlier notion Ohio State had truly caught up to Clemson.
In the third quarter, the Tigers continued to run away from the Buckeyes on a 53-yard touchdown pass from Lawrence to Etienne in which the running back took a screen pass and did all the work himself to give Clemson a 21-16 lead.
The Buckeyes answered on a Fields fourth-down pass to Olave that put them up 23-21 with 11:46 to go.
But Fields could not answer Lawrence, the sport’s unicorn of a quarterback, a second time.
A simple miscommunication — Olave thought Fields was going to scramble and broke off his post route toward the corner, while Fields stayed in the pocket and threw to the post — led to the game-clinching interception for Clemson.
Up next, a Tigers versus Tigers showdown in New Orleans that will keep the power centered south of the Mason-Dixon line.