The lead-up to Friday's Sugar Bowl featured plenty of drama stemming from Dabo Swinney.
He steadfastly denied that he ranked Ohio State 11th on his coaches poll ballot to get under the team's skin, and he defended any and all comments some might view as inflammatory by saying he made them out of principle. Those in the Buckeyes locker room, though, were listening to him. They heard everything he said and saw him rank them 11th.
Did that affect anything that happened on the field while knocking the Tigers out of College Football Playoff contention with a 49-28 win? Maybe. Maybe not. But to say him ranking the Buckeyes 11th had "nothing to do with motivation," which Swinney said afterward, simply wouldn't be true.
“I think that just gives us extra motivation, extra ways that we can get our guys going, get our guys pumped about this game,” center Josh Myers said. “I think it's really important to be gracious in victory and defeat, and so that's what we're doing. I'm not going to say anything else about that and what they said. It was a good football team. Respect to them. But comments and stuff like that just gives us extra motivation. If we didn't already have enough reasons to want to win this game, it just gave us more.”
“When you get this far in the season and you get into these couple games, anything motivates you, whether it's what they say, what we say,” tight end Jeremy Ruckert said. “This is the biggest stage in college football, and if that doesn't motivate you, I don't know what you're doing here. We heard everything he was saying. We definitely used that a little bit as motivation. But just the stage, the platform that we've been on in this College Football Playoff, now we're getting a chance to go move on. I mean, that's motivation in itself. We're just going to keep that energy going and keep rolling into this next week.”
There was no trash talk between head coaches after the game. Ryan Day has taken the high road when talking about Clemson, with his comments only slipping into the pregame narratives when he made alluded to Brent Venables' sign-stealing acumen.
“Dabo has always been nothing but professional to me, said, ‘Have a great game. Go win it all,’” Day said.
His team will get a chance to do so on Jan. 11 when it meets with Alabama in Miami.
Before Friday, though, Day wasn't quite sure whether such an opportunity would materialize. He knew Ohio State would need to rise to the occasion, and the shortened schedule hadn't allowed him to feel an overwhelming sense of confidence that that would actually happen.
“We hadn't really played a team like Clemson coming in,” Day said. “We hadn't played a lot of games. We hadn't played our best game on offense. We hadn't played our best game on defense. We hadn't played our best game on both sides. So there was a lot of anxiety coming into the game.”
As it turns out, Day didn't need to worry so much. Ohio State rolled to a three-touchdown win, and a lot of that could be attributed to a legendary performance from Fields.
The quarterback got knocked out of the game for a play, came back to the game hurt and didn't lose a step. He completed 22-of-28 passes for 385 yards for six touchdowns and one interceptions, adding 31 carries for 193 yards and a score.
“Something like that is expected coming from a guy like him,” guard Wyatt Davis said. “I’ve said it numerous times before: He is a great leader, great teammate and I’m happy that I can call him my brother, because he took some nasty shots today. And specifically on that one, I had no doubt in my mind that if he could, he would come back in the game and sure enough, he just needed to take a break, take a play out and he was back in the play. It was really not surprising. Especially now where we’re at, everyone just kind of expects that from him, because he’s shown it before.”
One interesting dynamic was Ohio State huddling more offensively. The Buckeyes had a predictable reason for doing so.
“We just didn't want them stealing our signals,” Fields said. “And that's pretty much why we huddled up a little bit more than we usually do.”
That worked just fine with Ohio State racking up 639 yards of offensive on 8.9 yards per play.
Trey Sermon continued his late-season breakout, carrying the ball 31 times for 193 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.2 yards a run. He was second on the team with four catches for 61 yards, too.
“Makes life fun, man,” Myers said. “Just like how you guys are talking about how Justin and Trey complement each other. When we do well, Trey does well. When Trey does well, we do well. It's a whole lot of fun. Especially after the start of the season that we had and people just being like, 'What's up with your run game?' even though we were like leading the Big Ten in rushing yards.”
A lot of credit for the run-game successes should go to an offensive line that played well all night, too. When did the Buckeyes know they'd be able to win up front?
“I would say right after that first series we knew,” Davis said. “That's how we typically know is right after that first series. Especially with this game, right after the first series we knew that we could control the line of scrimmage.”
Davis, the team's All-American right guard, experienced an injury scare late in the game. You can expect him to play in the national championship game, though, despite whatever pain he's feeling.
“Unfortunately, my knee buckled and it flared up,” Davis said. “But I will be all good. I just had to kind of come out of that because I couldn't really walk right after. But shortly, I bounced back after. It's something that rehab can't fix.”
A multiple points on Friday, offensive linemen had to get subbed out for short periods of time due to injuries, and as has become a theme this season, Ohio State dealt with it smoothly. Matthew Jones had his second career start and Paris Johnson played the most meaningful snaps yet of his young collegiate career.
“I think it all starts with practice, especially leading into this game,” Davis said. “Especially with COVID, you don't know who's going to be on that plane, so coach Stud, I feel like he does a great job of just getting the guys mentally prepared because you don't know what's going to happen. Like today, I went down for a play, then Matt went down. Guys were dropping. It's that time in the season, and you have to be ready. I feel like Paris when he stepped in, he definitely made the most of his opportunity. I'm really excited for his future.”
“I think it just speaks to the culture of our offensive line room,” Myers said. “I think it speaks to coach Stud as a coach and the players that we have in that room. Those guys did a great job filling in and coming in whenever they needed to, and they did exactly what was asked of them. Those are grown men. They were put in a tough situation. I mean, that's a terribly hard game to come in to off the bench. There's just stuff going on everywhere, blitzes everywhere, it's confusing. So I just think it speaks to our offensive line room, and really our whole team is like that. So I just think it speaks to our culture.”
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State's defensive line controlled what went on up front. Clemson managed only 22 carries for 44 yards, and star running back averaged 3.2 yards per rush on his 10 attempts.
“We really pride ourselves in stopping the run,” defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “Our group is named the Rushmen, and a lot of people think that that just means getting sacks and taking down the quarterback. But, no. Our goal every week is to keep a team under 100 yards rushing, and sometimes we don't, and sometimes we do. But we know when we do, we win the game.”
That theory proved correct on Friday.
“With everything this team has been through throughout this last 10 months or so, I'm just so happy for this group of guys,” linebacker Tuf Borland said.
So, next up? Bama with everything on the line. Per Fields, the Buckeyes saw a bit of the semifinal against Notre Dame.
“We were watching the first quarter before we came to the stadium, but I had no idea that they won. It's not really surprising that they won there,” Fields said. “They've been playing really well this year. But they have a lot of great athletes and great coaches. So, yeah, I'm just excited to get the opportunity to play them.”