GLENDALE, Ariz. — With his offense reeling against Clemson and a zero on the scoreboard next to his team's name, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer dialed up a deep pass to Corey Smith.
J.T. Barrett turned the ball loose down the seam as Meyer threw his hands in the air, looking for something, anything to ignite an anemic offense in the Fiesta Bowl. The ball fell helplessly to the turf and Meyer keeled over in disgust, trying to come to terms with the fact that a prayer was not answered.
The play represented a microcosm of Ohio State's horrendous offensive showing in the College Football Playoff, which ultimately ended the season for a team Meyer said earlier in the year felt like his 2014 team that won the national championship. That one was a year ahead but played out of its mind down the stretch to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
This one surely looked at least a year ahead on Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, as the Tigers were faster, quicker, deeper, stronger and had an answer for everything the Buckeyes did, leading to an emphatic 31-0 victory.
“Expected a much better performance,” a despondent Meyer said afterward. “Some guys played their tails off. Some other guys we didn't execute very well and — but no, I didn't anticipate that.”
Meyer's 15th season as a head coach ended with the first shutout of his career. Ohio State's best chance at scoring came early in the fourth after Curtis Samuel made a great individual play, breaking a pair of tackles for a 64-yard run to get the Buckeyes in the red zone for the first and only time on the evening.
Jamarco Jones promptly false started on the next play, Barrett threw an incompletion, ran for a loss of 2 yards then got sacked on 3rd-and-17. The next play, he threw his second interception of the night, another prayer into the end zone that Van Smith easily picked off.
The Buckeyes never took a snap inside of Clemson's 20-yard line, a stunning statistic indicative of the entire game.
“I mean we just didn't execute really on offense. It wasn't really like we were surprised by the looks that we had,” Barrett said. “I think we prepared really hard and coaches did everything they could as far as like throwing us the different looks that we thought we were going to get, and we just didn't execute it anywhere on offense, really.”
“You can call whatever plays you want but if you don't execute then it's not going to get done,” center Pat Elflein said. “Each play has a solution to each blitz and we just weren't executing against it.”
That is an understatement. Ohio State finished the night with only nine first downs compared to Clemson's 24. It entered the final frame of the slaughter with more punts (seven) than first downs (six). A lack of creativity on offense reared its ugly head once again, as Samuel really couldn't get loose like he has all season on lateral plays due to Clemson's speed. Entering the night averaging 258 rushing yards per game, Ohio State only could scrape together 88 on 23 attempts.
“You can call whatever plays you want but if you don't execute then it's not going to get done. Each play has a solution to each blitz and we just weren't executing against it.”– Pat Elflein
The Tigers were everywhere defensively, while Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another, a 30-yard wheel route over linebacker Jerome Baker to backup running back C.J. Fuller that made it 17-0 with 2:21 left until halftime. Desperately needing to mount a drive to breathe air into an outfit that stood on life support, the Buckeyes flopped again.
Aided by a holding penalty on Noah Brown, a quick three-and-out followed. Even with a ball-hawking defense making plays and intercepting Watson twice in the game, when that unit wore down so did Ohio State's chances at mounting any sort of a comeback.
Gareon Conley picked off Watson's first pass of the night to give the Buckeyes the ball at the Clemson 33-yard line. Tyler Durbin missed a 47-yard field goal four plays later.
He missed another 47-yard try later in the first quarter as the Buckeyes wasted a 54-yard kickoff return by Parris Campbell. Even when gift-wrapped excellent field position, nothing positive came out of it. That is a far cry from how Meyer's teams usually operate.
“Ohio State is not used to this. I'm not used to this, and we will not get used to this, Meyer said. “That's not going to happen again.”
Added Barrett: “We didn't help our defense at all. I mean we had the game at 10-0 for the longest time. We just couldn't get sustained drives and keep them off the field.”
Redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber didn't record a carry in the first quarter. But when he got the ball, he put it on the turf. His night finished with a bad drop on Ohio State's first series and two fumbles in his first three touches, one which Clemson recovered. In all, Weber ran just five times for 24 yards.
“I didn't understand that, but like I said I don't call the plays, that's not up to me,” Weber said.
Barrett's final line stood at 19-of-33 for 127 yards and the two interceptions, with 11 rushes going for -2 yards. Just as it had all season, the offense couldn't depend on its passing game.
“We will become a good passing team, we will,” Meyer said. “Next year.”
Clemson sacked Barrett three times and the Tigers finished with 11 tackles for loss. The overwhelmed Ohio State in all aspects, leading to what will be a long offseason with loads of questions about the offensive identity and those responsible for orchestrating it.
“Our plan was to be balanced. We didn't follow the plan,” Meyer said. “I'm going to take a hard look at some things when we get back.”
He better, because even though this team may have been a year ahead in the sense that it replaced 16 starters and 12 NFL Draft picks, Meyer built a monster that includes expectations from a fanbase that reside in annual national championship appearances. For the second straight season, the Buckeyes failed and Clemson will face Alabama for all the marbles on Jan. 9.
Ohio State's season finished with a resounding thud in the form of an offense falling flat on its face, a defense that was on the field for nearly 36 minutes and plenty of head scratchers to go around. That includes the deep shot to Smith that dropped to the turf and left Meyer without answers.
“We made it here and that's the standard at Ohio State. We lived up to that standard,” Elflein said. “We just didn't finish. It's a bad feeling.”
Added Meyer: “I think we have a bunch of good players, a bunch of good guys, and our anticipation is to get back here next year and take a good swing at it and realize we've got a lot of work to do, obviously ... When you said that a year away, no, shoot, I thought we were ready to go. And didn't anticipate this at all.”