"It was that kind of game. Again, when you're playing against great teams, things like that happen." - Ryan Day
For many, the narrative surrounding the 2019 Fiesta Bowl centered on a handful of plays that defined the outcome. Controversial instant replay calls took two touchdowns off the board and ejected slot cornerback Shaun Wade for targeting, leaving Buckeye fans (and administrators) in an uproar afterward.
To define this heavyweight bout by just those controversial officiating decisions would diminish the efforts put forth by both teams, though, as they delivered what may be the game of the year in this chaotically beautiful sport.
"I just know when two great teams get together, it comes down to a few plays, and it did again tonight," Ryan Day said following the game.
Stars on both sides made plays, as J.K. Dobbins and the Ohio State offensive line hammered the Clemson defense early, while the Buckeye secondary held the vaunted Tiger receiving duo of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross to just 80 cumulative yards on 19 combined targets. When an ankle injury hampered Dobbins just before halftime, Justin Fields stepped up with 171 passing yards in the second half to spark a stagnating offense without its star running back at full capacity.
But in close-fought games, it often turns out to be a handful of plays that makes the difference, and such was the case in this one. Though Ohio State led for most of the game, a few pivotal decisions by the Clemson coaching staff set up their stars to ultimately come away with a late victory.
4:20 remaining in 3rd Quarter; 3rd & 8 from the OSU 47
Justin Fields is intercepted by Isaiah Simmons
After a 53-yard screen pass to Travis Etienne resulted in six points, the Tigers held their first lead midway through the third quarter. Following a quick three-and-out, the Buckeyes were forced to punt and all the momentum seemed to be with the team clad in white and orange.
When Jordan Fuller's scoop-and-score touchdown off a Ross fumble was overturned via instant replay, the Buckeyes dearly needed a jolt of energy despite still forcing a punt. Facing a third down of their own just a few plays later, it seemed as though Fields was finally one step ahead of the never-ending barrage of blitzes Clemson coordinator Brent Venables was sending his way.
The Tiger defense sent extra rushers constantly from their 3-2-6 dime package, pressuring Fields with five or six defenders while employing a variety of coverages behind it, all in the hopes of overwhelming the Buckeye pass protection. With the boundary cornerback blitzing off the edge and hybrid free safety Isiah Simmons planted in the middle of the field, the sophomore quarterback thought he had receiver Binjimen Victor streaking past a single defender down the sideline.
Unbeknownst to Fields, who correctly identified the blitz and lofted a pass into the honeypot behind rotating safety Tanner Muse (#19), Simmons was also rotating over in a deep-half zone meant to trap the QB should he try to make such a throw.
Diagram of the type of play that Clemson used to get their first interception against Ohio State. It's a Bench 2 Trap call in which in the weak corner and Money will blitz from the boundary. The FS has to show a middle of the field look and at the snap drive to the weak 1/2. pic.twitter.com/aS7mJx2DBy— XandOJunkie (@Spread_it_Out) December 29, 2019
"Well, they made some good adjustments up front," Day said of the Clemson defense. "We were throwing the ball a lot in the second half. Receivers and the protection and Justin [Fields], they made some big plays. But it was hard to run the ball. They were kind of coming at us different ways. [Brent] Venables does a good job. He made some good adjustments."
Betting on the safety to get all the way to the sideline in time isn't something most coaches would be willing to do. But with a track star like Simmons roaming around back there, it's easy to see why Venables was willing to take such a risk.
The Tigers wouldn't score on their ensuing possession, but Simmons' interception took away what looked like a big play during a stretch in which the Buckeyes desperately could have used one.
2:32 remaining in 4th quarter; 1st & 10 from the Clemson 28
Trevor Lawrence connects with Amari Rodgers for a 38-yard gain
Ultimately, Ohio State would regain the lead early in the fourth quarter and would then melt nearly seven minutes off the clock with their next possession, leaving Lawrence with little time to mount a comeback. Although a Drue Chrisman punt pinned the Tigers back at their own six, a pair of quick, 11-yard gains gave Clemson room to breathe.
Then, as the Buckeyes lined up with two inexperienced defensive backs on the field in their nickel package, the Tigers unleashed kryptonite on their opponents.
Ohio State has relied almost exclusively on single-high defenses this season, playing a mix of Cover-1 (man) and Cover-3 (zone) defenses, both of which are vulnerable to four vertical routes attacking downfield at once. With only three deep defenders in the free safety and both corners, the fourth receiver should be open unless an underneath defender carries the route downfield.
The Tigers even added a switch release to the three-receiver side, crossing paths at the line of scrimmage to create a natural pick just in case the Buckeyes were in man-coverage. But with the defense playing a three-deep zone, the #3 receiver, Amari Rodgers, streaked right past young safety Josh Proctor (#41) playing a spot typically filled by linebacker Pete Werner.
It's unclear whether Proctor should have run with the receiver or made a call alerting another defender to the route, but Rodgers was wide open over the middle as the Buckeyes' single-high coverage was exposed at the worst possible moment.
1:58 remaining in 4th quarter; 1st & 10 from the OSU 34
Travis Etienne takes a pop pass 34 yards for the game-winning score
The Buckeyes were on their heels after pinning their opponents deep, and Trevor Lawrence had finally found his groove as a passer. In the much-hyped battle between him and Fields, it had actually been Ohio State's signal-caller who carved up the opposition through the air while Clemson's 6'5" QB picked up rugged yards on the ground.
Often thought of as a 'pro-style' passer due to his size and looks, Lawrence carried the ball 25 times for 107 yards that night, often taking designed runs and option keepers between the tackles in a manner more reminiscent of J.T. Barrett or Tim Tebow than Peyton Manning.
One of the most popular plays in the Clemson playbook has long been the QB counter, in which a guard or center and the offset tight end pull across the formation as the rest of the line blocks down, with the running back acting as a lead blocker as well.
After calling versions of the play with some success throughout the evening, the Tigers appeared to do so once again as they entered Buckeye territory with plenty of time still remaining. But as Malik Harrison and Baron Browning stepped up after reading the run action from their linebacker spots, Lawrence stopped to throw a quick pass to Etienne as he streaked down the seam instead of setting a block.
Once in the open field, Etienne's explosiveness was once again apparent, as OSU defenders couldn't catch him until he was diving into the end zone for his second score off a catch-and-run. But while the call seemed to catch everyone off guard, it was actually one Buckeye fans have seen before.
In Ohio State's last clash with a playoff-caliber opponent, a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma in 2017, the Sooners gashed the Buckeye defense with a nearly identical play-action pass. Though under the watch of a different coaching staff, that defense also leaned heavily on single-high coverage, though preferring man over zone-coverage.
But the Sooners had caught Buckeye linebackers aggressively filling their run gaps off the action of pulling linemen, with the fullback releasing downfield on the same pop pass pattern seen from Etienne.
Whether the Tigers had been saving the play specifically for the Buckeyes is unknown, the timing of the call couldn't have been better. Ohio State's defense was reeling, and the quick play-action pass got the ball to one of Clemson's most dangerous playmakers in space.
"Clemson, give them credit," Day added when asked about the handful of plays that made a difference in the hard-fought game. "They have a really good team and [are] the defending national champs. They do a great job. [Trevor] Lawrence came down and had a great drive at the end of the game, and they did a good job on defense. But again, I'm very, very disappointed we weren't able to win this game."