GLENDALE, Arizona – Ohio State’s offense drove into the red zone three times in the first half of Saturday’s game, and settled for a field goal every time.
Jordan Fuller returned a Justyn Ross fumble 29 yards into the end zone for a touchdown, but the fumble was overturned to an incomplete pass.
Finally, an incorrect decision by Chris Olave to break off his route led to Justin Fields throwing an interception to Clemson safety Nolan Turner in the middle of the end zone with just 37 seconds remaining in the game.
Cumulatively, those 26 points left on the field proved to be too many for Ohio State in Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, as Turner’s interception sealed a 29-23 victory for the Tigers, bringing the Buckeyes’ season to an end.
“I thought our guys left it all on the field,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said after the game. “We played hard and played bold. But certainly there were a lot of plays in that game that didn't go our way. Very hard to swallow right now. And going to have to really take a look at the film and figure out what really happened on some of those plays, because in a game like this where the margin for error is so tiny, one play can alter the game. It didn't seem like we got any of those plays.”
Early in the game, Ohio State was dominant. The Buckeyes got inside Clemson’s 20-yard line on four of their first five possessions of the game while holding Clemson scoreless for its first four possessions. But only one of those drives – a one-play drive that consisted of a 68-yard J.K. Dobbins run – culminated in a touchdown.
The Buckeyes settled for a field goal on their opening drive after an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-goal from the 4-yard line. They kicked another field goal early in the second quarter after what initially appeared to be an 8-yard touchdown catch by Dobbins was overturned after replay review showed that he did not possess the ball all the way to the ground. They settled for another field goal on their next possession after Dobbins dropped a screen pass with a clear path to the end zone.
Instead of taking a commanding 28-0 lead that Clemson would have been hard-pressed to come back from, Ohio State’s lead was only 16-0 despite its early domination, which kept the Tigers in the game.
“That was tough. You score touchdowns there, then it's huge,” Day said. “When you're playing against a good defense, things like that happen. I thought we made some good calls. We were just a little bit off.”
The turning point of the game came on Clemson’s next possession. Ohio State’s defense was about to get off the field yet again when Shaun Wade sacked Trevor Lawrence on a corner blitz, but Wade was called for targeting, disqualifying him from the game and keeping Clemson’s offense on the field in Buckeye territory, which led to its first touchdown of the night.
That call was met with disagreement from many observers – although Wade’s tackle technically met the targeting standard because he led with the crown of his helmet, Lawrence dropped his head into the tackle – and swung the momentum of the game in Clemson’s favor.
Clemson went on to score 21 consecutive points and take the lead in the third quarter, but Ohio State made the game-changing play it needed late in the third quarter, when Jeff Okudah forced a fumble on a catch by Ross that Jordan Fuller recovered and returned for a touchdown. Replay review led to another questionable call, though, when Ross’ fumble was overturned to an incomplete pass – even though it appeared that Ross possessed the ball and that there wasn’t indisputable evidence to overturn the call – taking the go-ahead touchdown off the board for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and veteran NFL official Terry McAulay were among those who criticized the officials’ decision to overturn the call after the game:
Just got a text from Ohio State AD Gene Smith: "Terry McAulay is 100-percent correct!!! Unreal!!" He added: "Feel free to share how pissed I am." https://t.co/mVcsabPYFf— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 29, 2019
Several Ohio State players also expressed after the game that they disagreed with the calls, but they also said they couldn’t solely blame the officials for the game turning in Clemson’s favor.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the calls, but then again, you can’t rely on the referees to win the game,” said Ohio State right tackle Branden Bowen. “You got to win the game yourself, and we just didn’t do that today.”
Ohio State still had opportunities to come back and win the game. The Buckeyes took a 23-21 lead early in the fourth quarter when Day made the gutsy call to pass the ball on 4th-and-1 at the 23-yard line, and Fields found Olave in the end zone for a touchdown. They drove back into Clemson territory with a chance to take a two-score lead on their next possession, but punted from the 39-yard line.
Even after Clemson hit back-to-back big plays to cap off a 94-yard touchdown drive and take the lead with less than two minutes to play, Ohio State drove all the way to Clemson’s 23-yard line again with a chance to win the game until Olave’s self-admitted mistake led to an interception that sealed the Buckeyes’ fate instead of a touchdown that could have punched their ticket to the national championship game.
It’s easy to look at the final play or the overturned defensive touchdown and single them out as the reason why Clemson won Saturday night’s game, but ultimately, it was the cumulation of all the plays that could have gone the Buckeyes’ way but didn’t that cost them in the end.
“You can make excuses and you can blame it on certain play calls or bad calls or no calls, but at the end of the day, you got to execute,” said Ohio State defensive tackle Robert Landers. “And I feel like sometimes, we didn’t bounce back like we needed to. Sometimes, we did. And they just executed at a high level.”
“You can’t rely on the referees to win the game. You got to win the game yourself, and we just didn’t do that today.”– Ohio State right tackle Branden Bowen
Ohio State didn’t play badly on Saturday night. Unlike its 2016 loss against Clemson, when the Buckeyes were thoroughly outplayed in every facet of the game, Ohio State performed well enough to win on Saturday for the most part, and if even one of the aforementioned plays had gone the Buckeyes’ way, they might have.
Wide receiver K.J. Hill said he felt like Ohio State “played great,” but “stuff just didn’t go our way.” Day was proud of the way his team performed, even though he shared in his players’ disappointment and anger over the defeat.
“I thought our guys played really well,” Day said. “It wasn't like our guys didn't play hard, or our guys didn't execute well, we didn't make big plays. We did all of those things and we just came up short in the end. We were right there all the way to the end. That's the way it goes.”
In a College Football Playoff game against one of the best teams in the country, though, a multitude of close calls that go in the other team’s direction – regardless of whether determined by the players on the field or the officials – are often enough to swing the game in the other team’s favor, and that’s what happened to Ohio State on Saturday night.
“Those game-altering plays that happen in a game, you need those things to go beat a team like Clemson where you're playing in a semifinal game,” Day said. “You need those one or two plays. Then to miss a couple of them, that hurts you.
“I just know when two great teams get together, it comes down to a few plays, and it did again tonight.”