Rapid Reaction: Ohio State gets revenge on Clemson, wins CFP semifinal in Sugar Bowl
Ohio State’s theme coming into this season’s College Football Playoff semifinal was “rewrite the end.” As in, flip the script on what happened to the Buckeyes in last season’s CFP semi loss to Clemson.
Coach Ryan Day’s Buckeyes did just that on Friday at the Sugar Bowl.
Justin Fields gritted out a great performance despite wincing in pain from a hit late in the first half, throwing for 6 touchdowns as Ohio State defeated Clemson 49-28 in New Orleans.
The Buckeyes will face Alabama for the CFP National Championship on Jan. 11 in Miami. The Crimson Tide knocked off Notre Dame 31-14 in the other semifinal at the Rose Bowl (held in Arlington, Texas, because of how widely COVID-19 has been spreading in Southern California).
Fields set a Sugar Bowl record and an Ohio State bowl record with 6 touchdown passes and threw for 385 yards. He had as many TD passes as incompletions.
Ohio State’s tight ends were involved in the passing attack more than at any time this season, catching 3 touchdown passes. More predictably, Chris Olave hauled in 2 TDs and more than 100 receiving yards.
Trey Sermon, who broke Eddie George’s school record for rushing yards in a game (331) his last time out against Northwestern in the B1G Championship Game, picked up where he left off with his performance in the Sugar Bowl. Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, rushed for 121 yards and a score in the first half alone. He wound up with 193 rushing yards as OSU displayed excellent balance: 385 yards passing and 255 rushing.
Buckeyes fans were probably sweating when Clemson, trailing 35-21 at halftime, forced a turnover then drove for a touchdown to start the third quarter. But the Buckeyes responded when Fields hit Olave deep downfield for a 56-yard touchdown pass to put a punctuation point on a 91-yard drive, the receiver’s second TD catch of the night.
Then the Buckeyes forced Clemson quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Trevor Lawrence to fumble in the third quarter and OSU recovered. OSU wound up punting but the exchange cost Clemson some valuable time.
A persistent pregame theme was about how Ohio State’s players who were there for the 2019 season, starting with Fields, were still stinging from the 29-23 loss to Clemson in last year’s CFP semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. And there was a perception among some pundits — and perhaps with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who ranked OSU 11th in his final coaches’ poll vote — that the Buckeyes didn’t belong because they had only played 6 games.
In last season’s CFP semifinal, one problem for the Buckeyes was that they settled for field goals too often when they reached the red zone. But on Friday, the Buckeyes outgained the Tigers 229-34 in the second quarter alone and ripped apart the Clemson defense for 5 consecutive touchdown drives to end the first half.
Clemson finally came up with a stop on the first OSU drive of the second half, when linebacker Mike Jones Jr. intercepted Fields in the end zone on what appeared to be a deflected pass. Lawrence drove his team right down the field on the ensuing drive, capped by his 10-yard touchdown pass to Cornell Powell.
Ohio State took a 28-14 lead with 5:12 left in the first half to cap a critical sequence of plays. On third down, Fields took off on a run and was stopped a couple of yards short of a first down on a crunching hit by linebacker and team captain James Skalski. But Skalski was ejected for targeting and the ensuing penalty gave the Buckeyes a first down. Fields went to the sideline for a play, then came back to hit Olave for a 9-yard score.
The Clemson defense, which came in giving up just 17.5 points per game, was already without all-ACC safety Nolan Turner for the first half because he was ejected for targeting in the ACC Championship Game against Notre Dame. Turner, like Skalski, is a team captain and one of the most critical members of the Clemson defense.
Fields hit tight end Jeremy Ruckert for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes their first lead, 21-14, early in the second quarter. Ruckert’s second TD catch gave OSU a 35-14 lead with 11 seconds left in the first half.
Another Buckeyes tight end, Luke Farrell, outfought cornerback Derion Kendrick in the end zone to make an 8-yard touchdown catch from Fields late in the first quarter as OSU tied the score at 14.
The Tigers drove 82 yards for a score on their first possession, mostly using their speed to run plays outside, including Lawrence’s 2-yard TD run to cap the drive.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Buckeyes responded behind Sermon, who followed a 34-yard reception with a 32-yard touchdown run to tie it 7-7 with 7:59 left in the first quarter. Clemson went back on top with Travis Etienne’s 3-yard TD run to cap a 7-play, 76-yard drive for a 14-7 lead. That gave Etienne 468 career points, an ACC record.
But for the most part Etienne wasn’t a big factor, rushing for 32 yards on 10 carries through three quarters.
The Buckeyes were without 15 players including RB Master Teague, DLs Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday and G Harry Miller.
It was also the first OSU win over Clemson in 5 meetings, including 2 previous CFP losses.