Ohio State let Clemson hang around.
The Buckeyes dominated play early in Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup, but led only 16-0 midway through the second quarter. The lead should have been larger. The Buckeyes settled for three short field goals in the first half, including two that came on the heels of drops from J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State’s star running back.
Dobbins was one of the game’s stars. He rushed for 174 yards and had two runs of 60-plus yards in the first quarter alone, including a 68-yard touchdown. But he let a diving would-be touchdown catch slip through his fingers and later dropped a screen pass that was set up perfectly and may have been another TD.
Those red zone shortcomings left the door open for Clemson — and the Tigers made the Buckeyes pay in an epic 29-23 win. Here are the six biggest plays that led the Tigers past OSU and into another College Football Playoff title game, where they will meet No. 1 LSU on Jan. 13 in New Orleans.
Ohio State DB Shaun Wade ejected for targeting
The Clemson offense struggled mightily for the majority of the first half, but finally got on the board thanks to a pair of Ohio State penalties. A targeting call against defensive back Shaun Wade was especially significant.
Facing a third-and-5 from the Ohio State 45-yard line with under five minutes left in the half, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence felt pressure up the middle from Wade and was hit hard before Chase Young helped bring Lawrence down to the turf.
The sack looked like it was going to force another Tigers punt. Instead, Wade was flagged for targeting, a penalty that resulted in an ejection for Wade and a first down for Clemson.
Five plays later, Clemson — after advancing further into OSU territory thanks to a pass interference penalty — scored for the first time via a hard-fought run by Travis Etienne.
Trevor Lawrence shows his speed
Following the touchdown run by Etienne, the Clemson defense quickly forced Ohio State to go three-and-out. On the ensuing possession, Lawrence showed that he is more than just a pocket passer.
The Clemson coaching staff dialed up a quarterback draw and the team ran it to perfection. Left guard John Simpson got the key block and Lawrence made an Ohio State defensive back miss in the open field and took it 67 yards for a highlight reel touchdown.
Lawrence’s touchdown cut OSU’s lead to 16-14 with 1:10 left in the first half and put all of the momentum on the side of Clemson going into the break.
Etienne’s burst through the secondary
The teams traded punts to open the second half, the second of which pinned Clemson all the way at the Ohio State one-yard line. And when it looked like the ball was about to go back to the Ohio State offense, a roughing the kicker penalty on a Clemson punt kept the drive alive.
The Tigers made OSU play. Two plays after the punt, Clemson dialed up a screen for Etienne. And Etienne, one of the fastest players in the country, shredded through the OSU defense and took it 53 yards to the house, putting his team up 21-16 at the 7:54 mark of the third quarter.
A controversial replay review
A controversial overturn via replay ended up being a pivotal moment in Clemson’s win.
With the Tigers leading 21-16, Lawrence hit Justyn Ross on a quick throw, but Ross appeared to have the ball stripped by Ohio State corner Jeffrey Okudah. Okudah’s teammate, Jordan Fuller, alertly scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown.
However, after a replay review, the play was ruled an incomplete pass, taking the Ohio State touchdown off the board. That put the ball back in Clemson’s hands, and allowed it to punt.
The game-winning touchdown to Travis Etienne
Clemson’s defense had stifled Justin Fields and the Ohio State offense for much of the third quarter, but the Buckeyes finally got a drive together late in the third and into the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes eventually went ahead on a gutsy fourth-down touchdown pass from Fields to Chris Olave, putting Ohio State in front 23-21 with 11:46 to play.
The score remained 23-21 until Clemson regained possession at its own six-yard line with 2:55 to play. That’s when Lawrence took over. First, he hit Ross for an 11-yard gain before following it up with an 11-yard run. Next, Lawrence fit one in to Amari Rodgers for a 38-yard gain into Ohio State territory.
That’s when all of the designed runs for Lawrence paid off. On first-and-10 from the OSU 34-yard line, Lawrence faked a run only to step back and look to Etienne streaking up the seam. Etienne caught the pass in stride and muscled his way into the end zone, giving the Tigers the 29-23 lead with 1:49 to play.
Clemson’s game-winning INT
Initially, it seemed like Clemson may have scored too soon. It wasn’t long before Fields had the Ohio State offense in striking distance. Eventually, however, the Clemson defense made a play to finally seal a victory.
On second-and-7 from the Clemson 23-yard line with 43 seconds to play, Fields looked to Olave in the end zone. But the quarterback and receiver were not on the same page. Olave cut one direction, but Fields threw the ball into the middle of the end zone. The only man there to bring in the pass was wearing a Clemson uniform. It was Nolan Turner, the Tigers’ redshirt junior safety, who made the play to put his team into the CFP title game against LSU.
Here’s another angle, showing the mix-up between Olave and Fields.
After the game, Olave took responsibility for the interception, telling reporters he broke off his route.
Chris Olave took full blame for the play at the end. Said it was “my mistake” and that it was his fault OSU lost. He thought Justin Fields scrambled so he broke off his route. Classy kid. He answered every question.— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 29, 2019
Fields entered the game with just one interception on the year. But he tossed his second and third of the season on Saturday, and the third ultimately doomed the Buckeyes and sent Clemson to New Orleans.
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