Five Reasons Why Ohio State Was Able to Win Big Against Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinals

By Dan Hope on January 3, 2021 at 8:35 am
Jonathon Cooper strip sacks Trevor Lawrence

Ohio State didn’t just beat Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, it dominated.

Despite entering the game as a 7.5-point underdog, Ohio State rolled to a 49-28 victory over Clemson on Friday night, authoritatively turning the tables on the Tigers and proving it belonged in this year’s CFP.

Going into Friday’s game, most people – admittedly including me – believed Clemson was a better team than Ohio State this year. Yet the Buckeyes outscored the Tigers by three touchdowns and outgained their opponent by 195 yards, doing what they needed to do on both sides of the ball to control the game, finally defeat the team they’d never beaten before and punch their ticket to the national championship game.

What enabled the Buckeyes to turn the tables at long last and beat Clemson in convincing fashion? Let’s take a look at five factors that played a huge role in Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl success.

Justin Fields was at his best

There’s no question what the biggest key to Ohio State’s success was against Clemson, and that was the historically great play of its quarterback. 

After struggling in the Buckeyes’ only two previous games this season against teams who finished the season ranked (Indiana and Northwestern), Fields was simply spectacular against the Tigers, tying a school record with six touchdown passes and throwing for 385 yards with 22 completions on 28 attempts. Even after a second-quarter hit from Clemson linebacker James Skalski injured him to the point that it hurt him to throw the ball even 10 yards downfield, Fields continued to launch strikes down the field with power and precision, and the Tigers’ pass defense had no answer.

Ohio State needed Fields to return to form just to have a chance to beat Clemson. He propelled the Buckeyes to victory by playing the best game of his career to date and reminding everyone just how special a player he truly is.

Trey Sermon stayed hot

The Buckeyes were shorthanded at running back for Friday’s game as Master Teague, who started Ohio State’s first six games of the season at the position, was unavailable. Thanks to Trey Sermon, that really didn’t matter.

After coming off the bench to rush for a school-record 331 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, Sermon followed that up with 254 total yards from scrimmage (193 yards rushing, 61 yards receiving) against Clemson. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry, highlighted by a 32-yard touchdown run for Ohio State’s first points of the game, while continuing to display the burst, strength and confidence that have enabled him to make a meteoric rise to stardom down the stretch of Ohio State’s season.

Ohio State’s ability to lean on its rushing offense has typically been a key big factor in how it’s performed in the College Football Playoff. Ezekiel Elliott ran for at least 230 yards in each of Ohio State’s two wins in the inaugural CFP. Ohio State ran for only 88 yards as a team in its 2016 loss to Clemson. J.K. Dobbins got off to a fantastic start running the ball against Clemson in 2019, but the running game stalled after he suffered an ankle injury late in the first half, which was one of several factors in that Buckeyes loss.

In this year’s CFP game against Clemson, though, Ohio State was able to lean on Sermon to both get its offense going in the first quarter and to finish the game out in the fourth quarter, while his success running the ball also played a huge role in bringing more defenders in the box and opening up the passing game for Fields.

Trey Sermon vs. Clemson
Ohio State's offensive line opened plenty of holes against Clemson, and Trey Sermon made good on their efforts.

The Buckeyes won both lines of scrimmage

In a tweet accompanying a story I wrote for Eleven Warriors on Thursday, I wrote the following sentence: “If Ohio State beats Clemson tomorrow night, it will probably be because the Buckeyes controlled the line of scrimmage.”

While that wasn’t the only reason Ohio State beat Clemson on Friday, it certainly was one of them.

Ohio State’s success running the ball on a night where it had 254 total rushing yards on 44 attempts (5.8 yards per carry) wasn’t only because of Sermon, but also because the offensive line and tight ends controlled the battle on the line of scrimmage with Clemson’s defensive front and consistently opened up holes for Sermon to run through.

The Buckeyes also had one of their best games of the season in pass protection, allowing Fields to be sacked just twice by a defense that averaged four sacks per game coming in. Brent Venables’ unit, which usually gets pressure against just about everybody, was mostly kept at bay by Ohio State’s offensive line.

Ohio State’s defensive front, though, did make a big imprint on the game. While the Buckeyes also had only two sacks, defensive linemen Jonathon Cooper, Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith combined to force three Trevor Lawrence fumbles (with Togiai’s recovered by Justin Hilliard), and many of Lawrence’s 15 incompletions were forced by pressure from Ohio State. And the Buckeyes were dominant against the run, limiting Clemson to just two yards per rushing attempt (44 yards on 22 carries).

The defense was good enough

Ohio State’s defense wasn’t spectacular against Clemson — it allowed Trevor Lawrence to throw for 400 yards, and the Tigers had four touchdown drives of 75 or more yards — but no one should have been expecting it to be.

Going into the game, the concern most people had about Ohio State wasn’t whether it would be able to score points, but whether it would be able to make enough stops against the Tigers – who had scored at least 34 points in all of their games this season before Friday – to give the Buckeyes’ offense a chance to win the game. 

Given that Lawrence is the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft and arguably the best quarterback in college football this season, and Ohio State’s defense entered the game ranked outside the top 100 nationally in passing yards allowed per game, the realistic goal for Ohio State’s defense wasn’t to shut down Clemson entirely, but avoid disaster.

After allowing two touchdowns on their first three defensive series, the Buckeyes accomplished that, limiting Clemson to just two more touchdowns on 10 possessions for the rest of the game. By holding the Tigers to their lowest point total of the year, Ohio State’s defense made sure that the Buckeyes’ offensive explosion would lead to a decisive win.

Ohio State didn’t give away points

If Ohio State had scored all the points it should have scored in last season’s CFP game against Clemson, the Buckeyes would have won that game instead of suffering a 29-23 loss. Some of those lost points in the 2019 game could be blamed on questionable officiating, specifically the fumble forced by Jeff Okudah and returned for a touchdown by Jordan Fuller that was overturned to an incompletion, but the Buckeyes also blew a multitude of scoring opportunities themselves, including three trips in the red zone that ended in field goals.

With the exception of one red zone interception thrown by Fields on the opening drive of the third quarter of Friday’s game, Ohio State didn’t miss those opportunities this year. Each of the Buckeyes’ other seven drives that crossed midfield all concluded with touchdowns. 

The Buckeyes also did a good job on offense and special teams of ensuring they didn’t put their defense in bad spots. The aforementioned red-zone interception was Ohio State’s only turnover of the game, and the only time Clemson started a drive with a short field came after Pete Werner was called for a personal foul penalty on a short punt by Drue Chrisman, which gave the Tigers the ball at Ohio State’s 46-yard line. The Buckeyes’ defense snuffed out that threat, though, by forcing a turnover on downs.

Ohio State learned the hard way in its 2019 game against Clemson about how missed opportunities and mistakes can add up and turn a win into a loss. By scoring almost every time they were in position to do so and not giving Clemson easy scoring opportunities this year, the Buckeyes were able to seize control of the Sugar Bowl and never let the scoreboard swing back in the Tigers’ favor.

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