GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ohio State’s locker room at State Farm Stadium on Saturday night was like most losing locker rooms. There was shock and there was silence, save for a lot of door slamming. Players showered and dressed quickly so they could get the you-know-what out of there.
In a corner of the room sat sophomore Chris Olave, the Buckeyes’ No. 1 wide receiver. He was still wearing pads and cleats, and his head hung low—not because he was looking at his phone (he wasn’t). Only minutes had passed since he had a unique chance to play hero and clinch the Buckeyes a trip to the national championship. With 43 seconds remaining, Ohio State trailed by six and had the ball at Clemson’s 23-yard line. On a second-and-7, Olave was supposed to run a post route and go one-on-one with safety Nolan Turner. But he thought quarterback Justin Fields was running a scramble play instead, so the wideout went in the opposite direction. The miscommunication resulted in a Turner interception in the end zone to end the game.
Clemson beat Ohio State, 29–23.
“My mistake,” a quiet Olave said, taking full blame for the outcome. While rehashing a College Football Playoff loss was the last thing Olave wanted to do, he took the time to answering every question reporters had for him.
“It’s terrible,” Olave said. “The worst feeling in the world. I don’t really have any words for it. Just tough.”
While this Fiesta Bowl game did technically come down to that play because it was the last one, it certainly wasn’t the reason Ohio State lost. The Buckeyes squandered many major opportunities and still, somehow, had a chance to win. Olave knows that. But in the moment, he put the game on himself. “I gotta make that play at the end,” he said.
The Buckeyes looked characteristically strong to start, whipping the Tigers with tempo and line of scrimmage domination. They marched to an early 16–0 lead behind running back J.K. Dobbins—who ran for 141 yards on six carries, including a powerful 68-yard touchdown run, in the first quarter. But Dobbins’s eye-popping stats and Ohio State’s lead could have been much larger. He dropped two go-ahead touchdown passes on consecutive possessions inside the red zone in the second quarter and Ohio State was forced to kick field goals, keeping Clemson very much alive.
Momentum didn’t really shift, though, until a controversial targeting call. Late in the second quarter, Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade drilled quarterback Trevor Lawrence for a sack. But Wade, a top player for the Buckeyes and a future top NFL draft pick, lowered his head and lead with the crown of his helmet on the hit, forcing officials to eject him following a review from the replay booth. Amir Riep, Wade’s backup, was called for pass interference on the next play and Travis Etienne later ran for an 8-yard touchdown to close the scoring gap.
Before the penalty, Clemson hadn’t scored and was struggling to move the ball. After the targeting call, Clemson scored 29 points, which included Lawrence galloping downfield for a 67-yard touchdown and Etienne taking a screen pass 53 yards for another score. Before this matchup, the Buckeyes had only given up one play of 50 yards or more all season.
Too many other things didn’t go Ohio State’s way as the night wore on. Lawrence also ran for a career- and team-high 107 yards with another score. Fields, who wasn’t 100% with a brace on the left knee he injured against Michigan, threw two interceptions after throwing only one all year. Cornerback Cameron Brown was penalized for roughing the punter, which kept a Clemson scoring drive going. Then late in the third quarter, safety Jordan Fuller scooped up an apparent Justyn Ross fumble forced by teammate Jeff Okudah and returned it for a touchdown. Minutes later, a replay review reversed the call and ruled it as an incomplete pass, again keeping Clemson on the field.
“I’m not paid to be a ref, but it looked like he caught it to me,” Fuller said.
Even after everything that could go wrong went wrong for Ohio State, it was only down 21–16 to begin the fourth quarter. Fields found Olave for a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-1, briefly regaining the lead. It was a respectably gutsy call from first-year head coach Ryan Day, but he was promptly criticized for kicking the extra point instead of going for two.
Clemson scored again when Lawrence led the Tigers on a cool, four-play, 94-yard drive that ended with Etienne’s third and final touchdown with less than two minutes to play and Ohio State still had one more shot. Fields got the offense rolling, but ultimately, poor communication ended a near-perfect season.
“That one play does not define the game,” Fields said. “Of course it was a big play, but [Olave] did not lose us the game. Chris is a great player. He’s definitely one of the best receivers in the country.”
While the Buckeyes are feeling a range of emotions after experiencing their first loss of the season, it’s clear they’re going to be OK. After their postgame media obligations, Fields and Dobbins walked into the locker room together, arms around each other, smiling. Asked big-picture how he viewed the season of Ohio State going 13–0 and making its first playoff run since 2016, Fuller said, “This is the most fun I’ve had playing football since little league or my last year in high school. I’m so thankful to be part of a brotherhood like this. Sucks it didn’t end the way we wanted to. We were right there.”
They were, despite the many miscues. So while Olave might be grieving and thinking he cost his team the game, at least has his teammates to pick him up.