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Ohio State Failures in Red Zone Cause Fiesta Bowl Loss

Settling for field goals costs Buckeyes trip to national championship game

The loudest lament emanating from Ohio State's 29-23 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff will focus on a replay overturn that denied the Buckeyes a third-quarter defensive touchdown.

It is, of course, always more tempting to blame others than to look in the mirror.

While the officiating decision to take Jordan Fuller's scoop-and-score TD off the board indeed will always loom large, OSU wouldn't be honest with itself to ignore the impact of three three first-half trips inside the Clemson 20-yard line that ended in field goals instead of touchdowns.

The toll of that will throb more painfully given the Buckeyes were the best in the nation all season at converting Red Zone possessions into touchdowns.

OSU scored 59 TDs on 75 such trips, better even than Playoff participants LSU (55-of-70), Oklahoma (52-of-73) and Clemson (49-of-65).

What's more, the Buckeyes were utterly impossible to predict inside the 20, scoring 30 times via the rush and 29 via the pass.

But if the Fiesta Bowl was anything, it was a clash between two teams who thoroughly dominated their competition all season, thus compiling statistics that ranked atop the elite teams in the nation.

How those battles -- OSU's top-ranked scoring offense against Clemson's No. 1 scoring defense, for instance -- would play out provided much of the pre-game intrigue.

Other numbers typifying the excellence of both the Tigers and Ohio State claimed more attention prior to kickoff, but none played bigger than Clemson's defense having allowed the fewest Red Zone touchdowns (10) of any team in the country.

Here is a recap of what occurred on the fateful series of each of the three Ohio State first-half Red Zone trips that ended in field goals:

First quarter, first possession of the game:

OSU drove smartly after receiving the opening kickoff and reached the Clemson 5-yard line on quarterback Justin Fields 22-yard pass to Garrett Wilson. Wilson's spectacular, leaping catch along the right sideline required replay to confirm, and that delay gave Clemson time to gather itself against the Buckeyes fast tempo.

  • 1-Goal-Clemson 5: Fields throws to J.K. Dobbins in the right flat. He makes the catch at the 7 and steps out of bounds for a loss of 2 yards. In hindsight, letting the ball fall incomplete would have been the better decision.
  • 2-Goal-Clemson 7: Dobbins darts outside and gets 3 yards before slipping as he tried to cut back and being pushed out of bounds.
  • 3-Goal-Clemson 4: Fields drops back and appears to have room to run to his left. Had his knee been healthy, not weakened by a sprained MCL that required a heavy brace, perhaps he sprints to the corner and gets a block from Chris Olave on cornerback A.J. Terrell to score. Linebacker James Skalski is closing, however, and Fields deems Olave open enough to throw. Terrell deflects the pass with his left arm, forcing the incompletion.
  • 4-Goal-Clemson 4: Blake Haubeil's 21-yard field goal at 12:03 gives OSU a 3-0 lead.
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Beginning of second quarter:

On the final play of the first quarter, Dobbins runs inside right tackle Branden Bowen, who pushes Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons up-field and outside. Dobbins cuts back and finds the middle of the field unencumbered. He's sprinting toward his second touchdown, but Tigers' safety Tanner Muse saves the score with a tremendous hustle play, making up five yards on Dobbins in the open field to dive and clip his ankles, bringing him down shy of the goal line. 

  • 1-Goal-Clemson 8: Defensive end Justin Foster rushes off Fields' right side and, from behind, grabs his jersey on the right shoulder. Fields is unfazed by the contact and throws for K.J. Hill, crossing from right to left along the back line of the end zone. The throw is high, where it has to be because of coverage and congestion in front of the play. Safety K'Von Wallace gets his fingers on the pass and Hill can't corral the incompletion.
  • 2-Goal-Clemson 8: Dobbins runs the same play that put OSU in position to score a few snaps earlier. This time, he looks to have a brief path to score via cut-back until linebacker Chad Smith wraps him up at the 5-yard line.
  • 3-Goal-Clemson 5: Dobbins swings out of the backfield to the right and is open. Foster tries to get there from his defensive end position, but the pass is floated beyond his reach. Dobbins has it in both hands as he dives across the goal line, but he doesn't pull the ball to his chest or turn his body to screen the ball from hitting the ground. His hands remain extended; the bottom of the ball hits the turf and slides backward. Dobbins secures it against his right leg. Officials rule touchdown, but a quick look at replay confirms it's no catch.
  • 4-Goal-Clemson 5: Haubeil's 22-yard field goal increases OSU's lead to 13-0 at 14:11 of the second quarter.

Second quarter, following Clemson three-and-out:

The Buckeyes start at their 14 and regaining possession quickly following Haubeil's second field goal. This is where head coach Ryan Day excels, putting pressure on teams when their defense gets little rest because of an offensive failure. A 24-yard completion to Austin Mack gets the drive moving and Fields 21-yard scramble helps it grow. Master Teague converts a third-and-3 with a 5-yard run to the 11-yard line.

  • 1-10-Clemson 11: The Buckeyes go backward before they begin when Mack moves before the snap, incurring an illegal procedure penalty.
  • 1-15-Clemson 16: Fields looks for Mack near the back line of the end zone. The ball is where it needs to be, and Mack rises over Skalski and makes the catch. As he comes down, Mack's foot lands in the white, out-of-bounds area, perhaps 8 inches from providing the Buckeyes a TD.
  • 2-15-Clemson 16: Clemson blitzes, and Ohio State has the perfect play called. Dobbins is open in the left flat and Fields lofts a screen pass on target. OSU has linemen down field, engaging two defenders inside the hash marks. Neither is likely to be able to get to Dobbins. The Tigers' only hope is Terrell, who appears to beat center Josh Myers's attempted block at the 10-yard line. It will be a matchup in the open field between Terrell and Dobbins, except as Dobbins turns to check out the traffic between him and the goal line, he drops the ball and it falls incomplete.
  • 3-15-Clemson 16: Fields has time to survey the field, but Clemson does an excellent job in coverage and the throw to the back corner of the end zone for Binjamin Victor is essentially a throw-away to avoid a sack.
  • 4-15-Clemson 16: Haubeil's 33-yard field goal provides a 16-0 lead at 7:20 of the second quarter.

The game would turn shortly afterward, with Clemson scoring twice in the final three minutes of the half.

The targeting call and ejection of Shaun Wade helped that comeback, as would an OSU personal foul on an attempted punt block sustain a Clemson TD drive in the third quarter.

Ultimately, Ohio State went 0-for-3 getting touchdowns off Red Zone trips in the first half.

And even despite those failures, the Buckeyes had chances in the final three minutes to win the game with a defensive stand or an offensive touchdown drive.

It managed neither, and thus suffered a loss that ends its season a step shy of the potential this season promised.

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