Ohio State Will Always Lament Missed Chances vs. Clemson
The only debate about Ohio State's emotionally-crushing 29-23 loss to Clemson is which missed opportunity, or perhaps missed call, will be debated most ardently or angrily among heart-broken OSU faithful.
Without question, what transpired in the College Football Playoff at the Fiesta Bowl will stand as the best semifinal of the format's six-year history.
That's small consolation for the Buckeyes, who until a miscommunication in the final minute between quarterback Justin Fields and receiver Chris Olave resulted in a game-ending interception, seemed poised to pull off a victory nearly as pulsating as their 2002 national title upset of defending champion Miami.
Those Buckeyes stunned a team on a 34-game winning streak, and when OSU sprinted to a 16-0 lead by the midpoint of the second quarter, its take-down of the Tigers and their 28-game streak seemed imminent.
That margin, though, could have been and probably should have been larger, but the Buckeyes settled for three Blake Haubeil field goals inside 35 yards to let Clemson breathe throughout a shaky first half.
Given enough chances, the Tigers eventually executed the comeback behind sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who drove them 94 yards in four plays after an Ohio State punt with 3:07 left.
Travis Etienne scored the game-winner on a 34-yard touchdown catch and run with a short throw over the middle, pounding into the end zone for the third time.
As accomplished as Lawrence, who passed for 259 yards and rushed for 107, and Etienne were, Ohio State will forever second-guess its own contribution to the Tigers' comeback by:
- Sustaining Clemson's first touchdown drive with a targeting call on a third-down incompletion that resulted in cornerback Shaun Wade's ejection.
- Enlivening Clemson''s go-ahead scoring march with a roughing-the-punter penalty as the Tigers prepared to surrender possession from their own 15.
Every time OSU came up agonizingly short of knocking Clemson out, the nagging, gnawing feeling persisted that the Buckeyes weren't going to win this one via TKO or standing eight counts.
They were going to have to land a clinching blow to leave the Tigers senseless.
And every time OSU failed, Clemson seemed to grow stronger, believing its wondrously-talented quarterback would find a way to will it through the fog of a slow start.
Eventually, Lawrence did, but his monstrous abilities and clutch performance will only serve as the epitaph for this game among Clemson loyalists.
The takeaway from Ohio State's faction will be bitter regret stemming from missed chances to score touchdowns on two calls overturned by replay.
The most disputed of those came with five minutes left in the third quarter when OSU safety Jordan Fuller returned an apparent Clemson fumble 28 yards for a touchdown that would have handed the Buckeyes a 23-21 lead.
Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah stripped the ball from Justyn Ross as he attempted to pull a short pass from Lawrence into his body. Ross spun and the ball came free before he could get it to his chest.
Fuller picked it off the turf and dodged traffic into the end zone as officials let the play continue.
"I saw the receiver catch the ball," Fuller said. "It came out. I picked it up and tried to do something with it. It felt like that gave us the momentum."
Replay, however, converted the Buckeyes' would-be touchdown into an incompletion that preserved the Tigers' 21-16 lead.
"When those things were happening, we were still overcoming," OSU coach Ryan Day said. "We were still fighting. Those are game-altering plays. You need those to beat a team like Clemson. To not get one or two of those, that hurts you."
So did two J.K. Dobbins near-touchdown catches in the first half, neither of which he could quite corral, both of which turned seven-point opportunities into three points.
It's the unrelenting nature of football that Dobbins, who hammered Clemson's defense for 174 yards on 18 carries and battled valiantly in the second half through a painful ankle injury, will have an asterisk pinned to an otherwise exemplary performance.
Fields led Dobbins a bit too much with what would have been a 5-yard TD toss in the second quarter, resulting in an easy overturn when replay showed the ball sliding up his leg as Dobbins hit the turf.
The second missed opportunity came on OSU's next possession when Dobbins dropped an easy connection from Fields in the left flat from the Clemson 16.
Dobbins had three offensive linemen waiting to block the one defender between him and the end zone, but he dropped the ball before could turn and run toward the goal line.
"Settling for those field goals, that's tough," Day said. "If we score a touchdown on any of those, that's huge."
As if finally stirred from oversleeping, Clemson awakened after the third Haubeil field goal to score twice in a span of 95 seconds before the half ended.
It wouldn't have, though, had Shaun Wade not been flagged for targeting and ejected after sacking Lawrence on third-and-five from the OSU 45 with 4:47 left in the half.
That pumped life into the Tigers, who scored with 2:45 left when Etienne darted away when fenced in near the sideline to score on an 8-yard run.
Ohio State punted after three futile plays aimed at exhausting the remainder of the time and Lawrence landed a haymaker once back under center.
He cut up the middle on a quarterback draw, juked safety Josh Proctor and sped 67 yards to score.
Suddenly, though thoroughly outplayed for 25 minutes, Clemson was within 16-14 as the bellies of Buckeye fans around the world wrenched into tighter knots.
The Tigers seized their first lead midway through the third when Etienne foreshadowed the finish by getting free with a short flip out of the backfield that he converted into a 53-yard touchdown.
Fuller's TD return that was—then wasn't—staggered the Buckeyes briefly, but Fields and Olave collaborated on a 23-yard score when Clemson expected a fourth-and-one plunge into the line three minutes into the fourth quarter.
From there, they exchanged jabs, each wary of the other's capability to capitalize on a mistake, until Day decided to punt, facing fourth-and-4 from the Clemson 39 with just over three minutes left.
"I was confident in [the] defense," he said. "I'd make the same decision now."
At least he'll be spared that second-guess.
So many others—some in his control, the largest ones, likely not—will haunt him for a good long time.
"I just know that when two great teams get together. it comes down to a couple plays," Day said. "It did tonight. It was a really strange game. We kept fighting. We kept swinging all the way to end. I couldn't be prouder."
For the latest on Ohio State, follow Sports Illustrated Buckeye Maven on Facebook and @BuckeyeMaven on Twitter.