GLENDALE, Ariz. – Ohio State’s dreams of a perfect season ended with a four-play, 94-yard touchdown drive by Clemson that sent the Tigers on to play for their third national championship in four years after beating OSU 29-23 in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night.
Trevor Lawrence’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Travis Etienne with 1:49 to play gave Clemson the winning score.
Ohio State drove into Clemson territory in the final minute but an interception in the end zone ended OSU’s final threat.
Despite much adversity, Ohio State had taken a 23-21 lead with 11:46 to play on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields to Chris Olave.
But Clemson (14-0) had one more answer than Ohio State (13-1),
Fields completed 30 of 46 passes for 320 yards and one touchdown. JK Dobbins rushed for 174 yards on 18 carries. Playing with a knee brace on his left knee, Fields wasn’t able to produce the explosive runs he had earlier in the season. Dobbins also left the game for a while with an ankle injury.
Ohio State outgained Clemson 516 yards to 417 yards.
There were several replay reversals Ohio State thought were controversial, none more so than one in the fourth quarter when Clemson receiver Justyn Ross appeared to have fumbled and Jordan Fuller returned the fumble for a touchdown.
“We didn’t let it get us down. We kept fighting, we kept swinging to the end,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said about his team’s reaction to the adversity it encountered.
Clemson will play LSU on Jan.13 for the national championship in New Orleans.
Ohio State built a 16-0 lead by the 4:55 mark of the second quarter before Clemson scored two touchdowns in the final 2:45 of the first half.
OSU took a 3-0 lead on the game’s opening drive on a 21-yard field goal by Blake Haubeil. It went up 10-0 when Dobbins broke loose for a 68-yard touchdown run on its second possession.
Dobbins went 64 yards on the final play of the first quarter and Haubeil kicked a 22-yard field goal to give the Buckeyes a 13-0 lead in the first minute of the second quarter.
Haubeil’s third field goal of the first half put OSU in front 16-0 with less than five minutes left in the first half.
But OSU’s missed opportunities, two big penalties and some bad tackling express mailed the momentum in the game to the Clemson side of the field.
On Haubeil’s first field goal, Ohio State drove 71 yards but couldn’t put the ball into the end zone. On his second field goal, Dobbins’ a 67-yard drive ended with three points, not seven.
And on the third field goal, OSU marched from its own 14-yard line to Clemson’s 16-yard line, but once again came up short.
“If we score touchdowns there, it’s huge,” Day said.
Those missed opportunites went from disappointing to ominous when Clemson got back into the game with two quick scores.
A targeting call on Shaun Wade when it appeared Ohio State had sacked Lawrence on third down started OSU first-half downward spiral. It also meant it would play the rest of the game without one of its best defensive players against a team with a strong group of receivers.
With the help of a pass interference call, Clemson cut the lead to 16-7 on an 8-yard touchdown run by Etienne.
After a three-and-out by the Buckeyes, Lawrence ran 67 yards for a touchdown that made it 16-14 with 45 seconds left in the first half. Lawrence’s previous long run this season was 28 yards, but when Josh Proctor whiffed on a tackle, the 6-foot, 6-inch quarterback was in the clear and out-ran two Ohio State defenders for the score.
“I’m feeling a range of emotions – proud, sad and certainly angry,” Day said. “It’s really hard to swallow right now.
“In a game like this where the margin for error is so tiny one play can alter the game and it didn’t seem like we got any of those plays. It didn’t get us down. We kept fighting, we kept swinging to the end. Our guys were competing all the way down to the end,” he said.
Things got worse on Ohio State’s first offensive play in the second half when Dobbins, who had his ankle twisted on a tackle in the second quarter, was taken to the locker room after he aggravated the ankle while running a short pass route.
Then after downing a punt at Clemson’s 1-yard line and getting a three-and-out against the Tigers, gave the ball right back to them with a roughing the passer penalty.
Two plays later, Lawrence dropped off a short pass to Etienne, who eluded Malik Harrison’s attempted tackle and sprinted 53 yards for the go-ahead score and Clemson’s first lead of the game at 21-16 with 7:54 left in the third quarter.
“There’s just a lot of tears, a lot of disappointment, a lot of people angry in that locker room right now, a lot of thrown helmets, just a lot of can’t believe it’s over,” Day said.