Ohio State poured it on Clemson to open Saturday’s contest.
The Buckeyes leapt out to a 16-0 lead, stonewalling Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence for a third-down sack to give the ball back to an offense that outgained the Tigers’ 222-77 in the first half.
Then a buzz from the replay official came down to the field. After review, Ohio State redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade was hit with targeting and ejected from the game. Clemson received a free first down, extending what became a touchdown drive.
In its 29-23 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State saw momentum swing the wrong direction on two controversial replays and multiple self-inflicted wounds.
“I think when we look back on it, it is going to be overwhelming,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “Those game-altering plays that happen in a game, you need those things to go beat a team like Clemson where you’re playing in a semifinal game. You need those one or two plays. Then to miss a couple of them, that hurts you.”
Referee Ken Williamson said the targeting was a result of Wade leading with the crown of his helmet and making helmet-to-helmet contact before wrapping Lawrence.
Wade’s penalty did more than gift Clemson extra possession time on an eventual touchdown drive, it left an apparent hole in Ohio State’s secondary.
Junior cornerback Amir Riep did his best to fill it, but Lawrence springboarded his offense with 259 second-half passing yards to aid in the victory.
“I’m probably too emotional to really talk about those,” Day said. “I’ll have to look at the film and see what that was. But I know there were some plays that were called on the field and then overturned, and when they overturn it, there has to be indisputable evidence.”
After 21 unanswered Clemson points, junior cornerback Jeff Okudah forced a fumble, recovered and returned for a touchdown by senior safety Jordan Fuller to give Ohio State the lead again.
Until replay again buzzed down.
“We had a lot of good looks on it. We put on fast motion and slow motion,” Williamson said. “The player did not complete the process of the catch, so, therefore, the pass was incomplete.”
It was another divisive call that quelled Ohio State’s momentum, taking points off the board and allowing Clemson to punt the ball and flip the field.
“I’m not paid to be a ref, but it looked like he caught it to me,” Fuller said.
Overturned calls weren’t the only wounds that cut Ohio State beyond the scope of its play.
The Buckeyes finished with eight penalties for 77 yards, but perhaps none were as costly as a roughing-the-punter whistle on fourth-and-6 at Clemson’s own 15-yard-line. Sophomore cornerback Cameron Brown missed the football by inches and sent Clemson redshirt junior punter Will Spiers somersaulting for a 15-yard flag.
Clemson took the lead with a touchdown later on the drive.
“I’m so proud of the way our team responded like that. It didn’t get us down. We kept fighting,” Day said. “We kept swinging all the way to the end. I couldn’t be prouder of the way we responded because that was hard to swallow.”
Through all the bad bounces and self-inflicted wounds, Ohio State still found an opportunity to advance to its first national championship game since 2014 on one final drive.
An interception erased those opportunities, and now all the gashes and lacerations from replay and flags will linger as hypotheticals.
Otherwise, Ohio State’s 2019 season is over.