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GLENDALE, Ariz. – Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave watched Ohio State’s season of promise end from the worst possible position. He’d slipped to the ground in the end zone, pirouetting the wrong way and careering to his derrière. Olave craned his neck to witness a ball released as a potential game-winning touchdown nestle softly into the hands of a Clemson defender.
Olave had already scored one fourth-quarter touchdown to give the Buckeyes a lead in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. He got the same matchup, but had mistakenly thought that Fields had begun to scramble, which prompted him to break off his post route. That’s why Clemson safety Nolan Turner’s game-sealing interception was the football equivalent of a can-of-corn popup. “It was my mistake,” Olave said. “I definitely put it on me, I put the game on my shoulders.”
Olave went on to unintentionally sum up the mental state of the Ohio State locker room, program and fan base — irate, overwhelmed and empty after No. 3 Clemson outlasted No. 2 Ohio State, 29-23, in the College Football Playoff semifinals. “It’s the worst feeling in the world,” he said, his voice trembling as he sat in front of his locker and answered questions for 20 minutes.
Clemson entered the game as the reigning national champions, favorites in Vegas and riding a 28-game winning streak. But anyone who watched the proceedings tonight would surely agree that Clemson pulled an upset. Ohio State dominated both lines of scrimmage and boasted superior overall talent, but through a star-crossed combination of bad fortune, bad calls and self-destruction – especially in the red zone – it somehow managed to lose a game it clearly should have won.
This is the type of game that will keep talk radio buzzing for months, overload the message-board servers and prompt enough conspiracy theories that it could be memorialized in Roswell. But the primary feeling for Ohio State dovetailed with Olave’s emotion – emptiness from missed opportunity, rage for one crucial overturned touchdown call and the aching void of unfulfilled potential. “Proud, sad and certainly angry,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
Clemson advances to play No. 1 LSU in New Orleans in the national title game on Jan. 13, and a victory in that game will have the Tigers poised to be one of the most dominant teams of this or any generation. And however history views this Clemson dynasty, the documentarians will surely spend more time deconstructing this Ohio State game than any other amid their 29-game, two-season run of dominance.
There’s a lot to unpack from the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night, as the official accounts will require footnotes, sworn statements from officials and an annotated history of the two most vexing and inconstant calls in the recent history of football – targeting and the catch rule. “This,” Day said, “was a very strange game.”
To solely blame the officials would be naïve, as five of Ohio State’s trips inside the opposing 25-yard line ended in three field goals, one touchdown and Fields’ game-sealing interception. J.K. Dobbins dropped two touchdown passes, Justin Fields threw two interceptions and Ohio State penalties (8 for 77 yards) extended two Clemson drives that ended in touchdowns. Ohio State’s defense also yielded a 94-yard, game-winning drive that lasted just four plays and took 1:18.
But to ignore the officials would be equally naïve, especially considering the potential impact of a Jordan Fuller touchdown return that replay officials wiped off the board with nearly five minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Fuller scoop and score after Jeff Okudah stripped Clemson’s Justyn Ross was a difficult call, as Ross appeared to control the ball and take multiple steps. But he never nestled the ball into his body, and officials ruled he “did not complete the process of the catch.” (Cue the existential NFL debate about what a catch really is.)
Veteran NFL official and collegiate officiating administrator Terry McAulay led the chorus on Twitter of those second-guessing the officials for overturning the Ohio State touchdown. “There is absolutely no way replay should have reversed,” he said. “‘Indisputable video evidence’ is simply not there.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith agreed, texting Yahoo Sports that McAulay was “100% correct.” He added: “Unreal!! And feel free to share how pissed I am.” [Smith said he didn’t ask for an explanation.]
The SEC officiating crew found themselves in the crosshairs of momentum swings all night. They called star Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade for targeting in the second quarter, tossing him from the game and extending a Clemson drive that turned into a touchdown. (The call was correct, even if the punishment seemed punitive.)
Other officiating decisions factored directly into scoring plays. Officials called an obvious roughing-the-punter penalty on Ohio State’s Cameron Brown that led to a Clemson touchdown. And Dobbins dropped a pass in the end zone on third-and-goal in the opening minute of the second quarter. Officials initially ruled it a touchdown before review correctly ruled it wasn’t. That put Ohio State up 13-0 but epitomized the lost opportunity for the Buckeyes as they built a 16-0 second-quarter lead. “We were getting our butts kicked,” Clemson coordinator Brent Venables said.
For Clemson, the victory looked nothing like anyone could have projected. Star quarterback Trevor Lawrence ran for 107 yards, including a 67-yard slalom through the Buckeye defense for a touchdown. Tailback Travis Etienne carried the ball just 10 times, in part because there wasn’t any room. Instead, he caught three passes for a team-high 98 yards.
Clemson fended off the blowout early on and then scored twice in the final three minutes of the second quarter to go into halftime down 16-14. Afterwards, Dabo Swinney sounded like the coach of a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. “The quarterback run is a little bit of an equalizer,” he said. “We needed to keep them honest enough to where we could get some stuff in the play-action game, and biggest play of the game came off the quarterback run that we had set up the whole game.”
Clemson heads off to a star-studded title game, where they should be underdogs against LSU in New Orleans. The Tigers put up the most dominating performance in College Football Playoff history, smashing Oklahoma 63-28.
For Ohio State, it’s a lot more complicated. The Buckeyes head home at 13-1, Big Ten champions and with the same unfulfilled feeling of the talented 2015 team that never quite got to cash in on its promise.
“In a game like this, where the margin for error is so tiny, one play can alter the game,” Day said. “It didn't seem like we got any of those plays.”
Instead, Ohio State’s missed opportunities led to the worst feeling in the world. As they unpack it in the days, weeks and months ahead, it’s difficult to imagine it feeling much different.
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