GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the expectant days of late summer, nothing stopped Deshaun Watson and J.T. Barrett from making plans for New Year’s Eve. Two of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, friends since they served as Elite 11 camp counselors the year before, had at least a little more than hope to work with.
It was a few months since Watson ran an unbeaten team as a Heisman Trophy finalist, driving Clemson to the brink of a national championship before a loss to Alabama expunged those hopes at the end. And Barrett was supposed to have been there even before that, a broken ankle robbing him of the chance to lead the Buckeyes in their title run of the 2014 season.
Both reasonably suspected they had enough talent to take aim at the College Football Playoff again. Both might have argued they were owed another shot, anyway. “Early in the year, it was, like, hopefully I'll see you at the end,” Barrett said this week. “And sure enough we're here.”
They exchanged text message pleasantries once the playoff pairings for 2016 were announced, happy to face each other but entirely cognizant that one would leave his aspirations in the desert as his friend set off to seize a prize on the other side of the country. Clemson obliterated Ohio State with a 31–0 win in the Fiesta Bowl, authored by Watson’s 316 total yards and three total touchdowns to go with a stifling defense that left Barrett and his offense with nowhere to go all night. The Tigers limited the Buckeyes to 215 total yards on the evening and made them the first Ohio State team to be shut out since 1993.
For a pair of high-level performers, Watson and Barrett might fairly be viewed as contrasting actors: the exalted recruit seeking ultimate fulfillment of his promise versus the grinder after a reward for surpassing the obstacles set in his way, the uber-talent versus the uber-survivor, blue-chip versus blue-collar. Watson, after all, was the five-star, top 40 recruit and No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country, oozing ability and pursued by everyone to bring a team precisely where he has brought Clemson as a two-time Heisman finalist. No one would scoff at Barrett’s talent—he was a four-star recruit out of Wichita Falls, Texas—but he didn’t have a spot among the top 150 prospects in the country and suffered an ACL tear as a senior in high school and redshirted in his first fall in Columbus. His breakout campaign of 2014, when he finished fifth in the Heisman balloting after beginning the season as the anonymous backup to Braxton Miller, was then upended by the broken ankle against Michigan that precluded an opportunity to finish the title pursuit he had started.
Watson, of course, had his own travails, if only relatively so.
He watched another player give another acceptance speech while hoisting the Heisman only a few weeks back. For the third time in a year, he was a runner-up, though Clemson’s junior star might note he could only truly affect the finish in one of those three circumstances. “I think he said it best: He wants the trophy nobody votes on,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said this week.
And despite his evident talent and presumptive first-round NFL draft pedigree, Watson, too, came to Arizona with baggage. His 15 interceptions were set against a ball-hawking Ohio State secondary to bring about questions on how he’d deliver this time around. “There's always things that you have to continue to improve on and prove people wrong,” Watson said this week. “Regardless of the situation or who you are, you're going to have haters, you're going to have people that like you. So that's another opportunity for me to go out there and to show that I'm capable of playing on the big stage and playing well and helping my team win.”
There was some uncertainty about that on the second snap of the game for Clemson, as Mike Williams slipped on the University of Phoenix Stadium turf and a Watson pass ended up in the grip of Ohio State’s Gareon Conley. That uncertainty did not last long. A 37-yard cannon shot of a pass from Watson on the next series set up a field goal. Another big-boy throw to Williams—a 26-yarder to the outside shoulder—sparked a drive that led to a one-yard Watson touchdown keeper. And a sidewinding, across-the-field-and-back 33-yard scramble from Watson set up the quarterback’s artistic 30-yard scoring toss to C.J. Fuller—as he absorbed a hit that merited a roughing the passer call—that brought about a 17–0 lead.
When he tucked the ball again late in the third quarter and followed blockers in for a seven-yard score, it was 24–0 and effectively a ticket to Tampa. This was not a night marred a fraction by multiple picks. Most likely it will be remembered for the creativity and rocket-fueled completions that sent Clemson to another title game appearance. After all, when he returned to the sideline after his second touchdown pass, Watson took a gander at the big screens replaying his cross-field scamper and did the only thing he could: He laughed.
The feeling would be less jovial for his Ohio State counterpart. Even this season, Barrett led the nation’s No. 9 scoring offense but rated as the nation’s 37th-most efficient passer, a lackluster passing game undermining appraisals of the redshirt junior even as he kept winning and even as league coaches voted him co-winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award, given to the Big Ten’s best player. During Fiesta Bowl week, Clemson safety Jadar Johnson declared that the Tigers had seen better quarterbacks than Barrett. The response from Ohio State’s quarterback: What else is new? “I mean, it's not anything crazy, I feel like,” Barrett said earlier this week. “It's not like we're going to hang it up on the game-day bulletin board. We're okay. We're good. You know what I'm saying? We're good.”
They were anything but on Saturday. It certainly wasn’t Barrett’s fault that the offensive line was entirely incapable of dealing with Clemson’s massive and feral defensive front; he was just the victim of that circumstance. The Buckeyes managed all of 88 yards in the first half, averaging 2.9 yards per play and surrendering five tackles for loss. If Barrett was at fault —he was 12 of 19 passing for 80 yards in the half, which all things considered wasn’t bad—one might blame him for too much patience and too little risk-taking early on, which led to virtually no downfield threat from the Buckeyes until their incompetence was almost too much to overcome.
Midway through the third quarter, Barrett had receiver Corey Smith open downfield in the sort of play that could have broken the siege Clemson’s defense had laid. He overthrew Smith and on the next play got sacked by the Tigers’ Clelin Ferrell for a 12-yard loss to force a punt.
It got worse before it got better. Barrett moved Ohio State’s offense into scoring position late in the third quarter…only to have a high pass tipped into the hands of Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley. He later heaved a fourth-down interception and got flagged for a personal foul on the return. In total, he passed for just 127 yards and rushed for minus-two. No, Clemson’s defense, which also recorded 11 tackles for loss, never relinquished its grip. And that would leave Barrett disappointed in the desert, another playoff experience that began and ended contrary to his own expectations.
If he returns to Columbus for one more season, he’ll start with more than a decent shot at redemption. Ohio State should be loaded for another run in 2017. But it would be an awful long wait for a player who felt he waited long enough already.
Watson, meanwhile, had his instant gratification. He had another win in another playoff semifinal and another shot at Alabama, this time on Jan. 9 in Tampa. He’ll have one more shot at that trophy no one votes on. “No one wants to finish second place,” Watson said during the week before the game. “This year we want to flip the script and be the team to sit on the stage at the end.”