Chris Olave’s Long-Awaited Chance For Redemption Arrives With Ohio State Needing Star-Level Performance Against Clemson

By Colin Hass-Hill on December 29, 2020 at 7:30 pm
Chris Olave
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Person after person sat down in a chair with a computer’s webcam pointed at them and Sugar Bowl background behind them to take questions at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Monday, and all of them harped on the exact same point. 

In the Clemson rematch, the Buckeyes got exactly what they spent the past year hoping for. 

To center Josh Myers, “this is exactly where we wanted to be.” The team’s been “talking about it all year,” tight end Luke Farrell said. They had a “whole winter offseason program dedicated to this game,” per guard Wyatt Davis. Quarterback Justin Fields said this team’s “whole motivation” over the offseason was “just getting a chance to play those guys again and getting this opportunity.” Wide receiver Garrett Wilson called it a “rivalry that’s built up over the last couple years.” The Buckeyes “asked for this opportunity,” head coach Ryan Day said, and “now we’ve got to go.” 

“Thank God we're here after the crazy year we've had,” Myers said. “I think we're just excited to get another shot at them.”

Though all of his teammates are approaching it similarly, perhaps no Buckeye wanted it or asked for this opponent more than Chris Olave, the second-team All-Big Ten wide receiver who sat out the last game of his team’s season due to COVID-19 protocols but is expected to be good to go on Friday.

In a moment on Dec. 28, 2019 that immediately became infamous in Columbus, he made what he immediately called a “mistake” and broke off his route in last year’s 29-23 Fiesta Bowl, turning left instead of continuing his post route toward the right side of the end zone. Justin Fields’ ball subsequently sailed into Nolan Turner’s hands, effectively ending the game and any hope of an Ohio State comeback.

“I know he took last year personal, maybe a little bit more personal than he should, but I think it's what competitors do,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.

To say he took it personally to a degree that Wilson felt might be viewed as overboard wouldn’t be a stretch at all.

Olave couldn’t eat solid food for several days, Day said early this year. The season-ending play hit him in a “different way,” per wide receivers coach Brian Hartline who also said it “has a chance to have a ripple effect in his career.” Even all the way in September when he first spoke to the media since the fateful miscue, Olave admitted he hadn’t gotten over it even though he and Fields only talked about it once. 

“I still got that chip on my shoulder and I want to show the world,” he said three months ago.

What, exactly, did he want to show the world? Well, he might be about to show everybody.

Olave never even considered opting out of this season when it became a trend across the college football landscape earlier this year. Not after what happened against Clemson. He wanted another shot at the Tigers, and he’ll get it on Friday with a national title game appearance on the line. To take down the Dabo Swinney-led powerhouse, the Buckeyes will need a star-level performance from Olave.

“I talked to him after that game,” Garrett Wilson said this week. “All we talked about is getting another shot at playing Clemson and another shot at playing for a national championship. A year later, we're right back in the same scenario. I know that he just wants to make the most of it. 

“We all trust Chris. We all know he's the best receiver in the nation. We've got Chris out there, we feel good.”

That became even more evident when watching an Ohio State offense without Olave in the Big Ten championship game.

Sure, his absence wasn’t the only reason why the team struggled to push the ball down the field through the air. But he undeniably would’ve helped. Day believes in staying aggressive at all times, which in part means he wants to attack defenses with deep balls. That got the Buckeyes into trouble at points against Northwestern when it seemed as though Fields had openings underneath that he didn’t take advantage of. He only completed two passes for more than 12 yards, hitting Wilson for 21 yards in the second quarter before finding Julian Fleming for a 23-yard gain on the next play.

With Olave now back on the practice field and returning to game action later this week, he’ll be a key part of Ohio State hitting big plays on a Clemson defense that’s been susceptible to that at points this season. Even though he’s played only five games, he has accounted for 30.3 percent of his team’s receptions, 34.7 percent of receiving yards and 33.3 percent of receiving touchdowns.

As Wilson said, Olave could just “open everything up in the offense” later this week.

“I just missed Chris being out on the field,” Fields said. “He's a great leader for the receivers. Of course, he's a great player. So I think having him back will make our offense better as a whole. I think me and Chris have a great chemistry on the field, so just having him back out there will definitely improve our offense a lot.”

Some of that deep-ball acumen, Wilson believes, comes from Olave’s background as a baseball outfielder. Whatever the reason, he developed a quick bond with Fields a year ago that remains as strong as ever.

“I think there's a comfort factor with the timing and the time that they've had together,” Wilson said. “Whether you'd call that a security blanket, I don't know if I'd say that. But he tracks deep balls unbelievably well and has great spatial awareness. I think there's a lot of confidence that Justin knows anytime if he's going to him that between he and Garrett in particular as this year went along that those guys had a great chance, if he could get it to someone on target, to make a play for him.”

Going into Friday’s matchup in New Orleans, though, only one deep ball will be in the mind of many. The failed connection in Glendale, Arizona, a mere 366 days ago remains a sore topic for Olave.

As the world around him has changed throughout the year, the pain of that moment remains ever-present within the wide receiver. Olave thinks it changed him, and in his shot at redemption on Friday, he plans to show why.

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