Undefeated LSU was basically awarded a first-round bye in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, undefeated Ohio State and undefeated Clemson were pitted against each other in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal, the sport’s equivalent of being thrown into a dome with a shattered pool cue and told that only one who entered could leave. The result was a brutal brawl that ended with broken bones and broken hearts. Ohio State played like the better team for large swaths of Saturday night, only to throw away its chances at victory in maddening, confusing, and controversial fashion. Clemson left Arizona with a 29-23 victory to reach the national title game for the fourth time in the past five years.
The Buckeyes outgained the Tigers by nearly 100 yards, 516 to 417. But Ohio State committed two turnovers, while Clemson had none. Ohio State was flagged for more penalties than Clemson (eight to six), including some that extended Clemson drives and led to touchdowns. Ohio State failed to cash in on its red zone chances, with its four trips resulting in three field goals and an interception. And when given a chance to ice the game during the final few minutes, Ohio State punted, allowing quarterback Trevor Lawrence to lead the Tigers on a game-winning drive.
Buckeyes fans will probably focus on a pair of controversial calls that both went Clemson’s way. The first was a targeting penalty against Shaun Wade, which ended the linebacker’s night—and considering he’s projected to be a high 2020 NFL draft pick—potentially his college career. Wade led with his helmet, but many onlookers felt he did so in an attempt to hit Lawrence’s shoulder, only for Lawrence to dip his head at the last second.
The second came on a play that appeared to be an Ohio State forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown. After a replay review, however, the call was changed to an incomplete pass. In slow motion, it looks like Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross catches the ball and takes multiple steps before the ball is poked loose. NBC officiating expert Terry McAulay tweeted that there was “absolutely no way” the on-field call should’ve been overturned.
Both calls were critical: Clemson was held scoreless before Wade’s ejection, but snapped to life afterward, as the Tigers scored a touchdown after the penalty turned a fourth down into a first down. And while the Buckeyes got the ball back after the overturned touchdown, they threw an interception instead of scoring.
If I had to make the two calls, I would’ve upheld the targeting but let the scoop-and-score stand. A favorable interpretation of events is that the Buckeyes got the bum end of some 50-50 calls. This happens in sports: Refs giveth, refs taketh away. An interpretation of events Ohio State fans will cling to is that they were screwed on a pair of calls that indisputably changed the outcome of the game by directly affecting the scoreline and removing one of the team’s most important players. They’re entitled to that rage. (Although I’m not subscribing to some conspiracy theories floating around.)
Even in spite of those calls, though, Ohio State had a distinct chance to win Saturday, but screwed up in several game-changing ways. There was the roughing the punter call penalty, when Ohio State went for a punt block deep in Clemson territory early in the third quarter. After the penalty, the Tigers traveled 70 yards in two plays for a score.
Roughing the Punter gives Clemson a first down. pic.twitter.com/QfOKkVHxKs— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) December 29, 2019
There were two dropped passes by Buckeyes running back J.K. Dobbins—who otherwise played a remarkable game despite suffering an ankle injury—both of which could have resulted in touchdowns. Ohio State kicked field goals on both possessions, but should have come away with 14 points instead of six.
Dobbins get nailed by the Dez Bryant rule. Clearly a catch, stretching across the goal line, ground causes the fumble. That could be a massive play if Clemson can come down and get on the board. #CFPlayoff pic.twitter.com/gEWnuJ3iOm— MyBookie Sportsbook (@betmybookie) December 29, 2019
The Buckeyes also could have tackled Travis Etienne on this play:
CLEMSON ON THE BOARD!— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 29, 2019
Travis Etienne would not be denied pic.twitter.com/qeqGiLeOJf
Or on this play:
7:54 Q3 - Clemson 21, Ohio State 16 — Third unanswered touchdown! Travis Etienne takes a short pass and zooms thru the Buckeye defense #ToTheHouse for a 53 yard TD. (Drive: 7 plays, 99 yards, 2:45) #CFBPlayoff | #FiestaBowl | #CFBSemifinal | #CFBtweet https://t.co/L263pmhOob— JoeySportsBall (@JoeyHashtag) December 29, 2019
Or on that first play up at the top of the post! Or they could’ve prevented Lawrence, whose previous career high for rushing was 66 yards in a game, from busting out a 67-yard touchdown run as the second quarter wound to a close, his glorious golden mane blowing behind him as he galloped past the defense.
But the most damning moment came with about three minutes to go and Ohio State clinging to a 23-21 lead. The Buckeyes had a fourth-and-4 at the Clemson 39-yard line. Ohio State had the no. 1 scoring offense in college football this season (48.7 points per game), Dobbins was averaging 9.7 yards per carry, and Fields had moved the ball effectively all night. If Ohio State had picked up a first down, it could have taken more time off the clock and won the game. Instead, the Buckeyes had punter Drue Chrisman try to draw the defense offside. They took a delay of game penalty and punted.
The punt netted 34 yards; Clemson registered two plays of more than 33 yards on its subsequent touchdown drive. The decision to punt is especially preposterous because Clemson’s only successes of the game came on long touchdowns, as it scored on plays of 67, 53, and 34 yards, respectively. Why did field position seem so important?
The Buckeyes also had another final chance to win the game, but literally threw it away. After wideout Chris Olave cut the wrong way on a route, Fields threw his second interception of the night, after tossing just one in the first 13 games of the season.
SP+ says that the Buckeyes were the best team in college football this year by a pretty sizable margin. (The Buckeyes were also top in four of the six computer algorithms used by the old BCS rankings.) They had one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the sport in Chase Young, one of the best quarterbacks in Fields, one of the most dynamic playmakers in Dobbins, and one of the most dominant corners in Jeff Okudah. Oh, and a slew of other prized pro prospects on both sides of the ball. Their dominance ended in a game in which they got the worse end of virtually every key moment. They can blame the refs, or they can blame themselves.
It doesn’t matter to Clemson, which has now won 29 consecutive games, including all 25 started by Lawrence. Most have been blowouts, with Saturday marking the first time that Lawrence had ever played for the Tigers while trailing in the second half of a game. Clemson had looked like the better team in every game it played for two consecutive years, only to eke out a win Saturday by convincing the Buckeyes to open fire on their own toes. Maybe that was just a fluke, or maybe winning this deeply strange game against a legitimate powerhouse was the scariest part of the Tigers’ title defense to date.