No. 2 Ohio State (13-1, 10-0 Big Ten) lost to No. 3 Clemson (14-0, 8-0 ACC) 23-29 Saturday, eliminating the Buckeyes from the College Football Playoff. Here are The Lantern’s five takeaways from the loss.
Rewrite the record books
Junior running back J.K. Dobbins sprinted into the Buckeye record books following a dominant presence in the first half.
With a 68-yard touchdown burst in the first quarter and another 64-yard gallop in the second, Dobbins passed Eddie George, who rushed for 1,927 yards in 1995, to become Ohio State’s single-season rushing leader. He’s the only Buckeye to eclipse 2,000 yards in a season.
“It definitely means a lot to me,” Dobbins said. “I don’t know how to put it into words. It definitely means a lot to me, though.”
The leading back for the Buckeyes caught six passes out of the backfield as well, overshadowed by two red zone drops, forcing Ohio State to settle for field goals on both drives.
Hobbled in the second half with an ankle injury, Dobbins’ attacking style lacked the burst shown in the opening minutes, gaining only 35 yards on nine carries in the second half.
“Those first runs in the first half he came off the back end of those things; he looked powerful,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “It was hard to run the ball. They were kind of coming at us in different ways. He got an ankle there, and he had to fight through that. He got it taped up, came in, he came out. He was really working through that but I think it did affect his play a little bit, that explosion.”
Hearing the impending question of his return next year, Dobbins responded with a smile.
Early on, Ohio State’s defensive unit stymied the Tigers.
Following a missed Clemson field goal on its opening drive, the Buckeyes forced punts on three consecutive series, jumping out to a 16-0 lead.
Midway through the second quarter, the momentum shifted.
On third-and-5, just across midfield, redshirt sophomore defensive back Shaun Wade dashed toward Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence on a cornerback blitz.
After review, Wade was flagged for targeting and ejected for the rest of the contest for his helmet-to-helmet contact with the Clemson passer.
“When we got the sack and then the penalty was called on Shaun, the momentum kind of swung right there,” Day said. “We thought we were really doing a great job on defense.”
The penalty set Clemson up deep in Buckeye territory and gave life to a desperate Tiger offense.
The Tigers jumped back into the game with 21 unanswered points headed by Lawrence, who kept the ball on a 67-yard touchdown scramble to trim the Buckeye lead 16-14 heading into the half.
“Lawrence running, not really a huge surprise,” redshirt junior linebacker Tuf Borland said. “We saw that on film, extending plays and being able to find open guys — credit to them.”
In the second half, junior running back Travis Etienne squirmed by the defense, taking a quick pass 53 yards to the end zone before adding another 34-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter.
After holding the Tigers to 77 yards in the first quarter, the defense gave up 417 total yards, with more than 100 from Lawrence on the ground.
Following Wade’s removal, the Buckeyes were unable to effectively stop the run, and the Tigers took advantage.
Red zone relapse
Ohio State moved the ball well through the air and on the ground against Clemson. However, the Buckeyes failed to capitalize on their greatest opportunities.
They were unable to score a touchdown on all three of their red zone trips, tallying only nine points in prime opportunities to pull away from the defending national champions.
Early in the second quarter, Fields found Dobbins on a wheel route for a 5-yard touchdown. After being reviewed, the pass was ruled incomplete.
“That was tough,” Day said. “If you score touchdowns there, then that’s huge. The one to J.K. that they called a touchdown first and then overturned, that was a tough one. That was four points there, and then the one to Austin [Mack] in the back of the end zone.”
On the next possession, Dobbins turned upfield on a screen play, dropping a pass that likely would have gone the distance with three linemen leading the way.
“We just missed there,” Day said. “When you’re playing against a good defense, things like that happen. We were just a little bit off. It was that kind of game.”
Entering the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson, sophomore quarterback Justin Fields had thrown just one interception.
In the final 30 minutes in Glendale, Arizona, the Heisman finalist threw two.
To begin the first half, the Buckeyes found consistency through the air, as tempo and quick routes moved the ball down the field.
Catching Clemson off guard with pace, Fields had time to throw receivers open and deliver darts to open targets.
However, in the second half, the Tiger secondary tightened, and Fields threw a strike into double coverage and the arms of Clemson junior linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
Fields found sophomore wide receiver Chris Olave across the middle on fourth-and-1 for a 23-yard touchdown strike to regain the lead, but left time for Lawrence and Clemson to retaliate with a score of their own.
Needing a touchdown, Fields took a shot to the end zone, looking for the same route that Olave had run before.
This time, Olave broke it off and slipped as the ball sailed into the arms of Clemson junior safety Nolan Turner.
“He thought that Justin was scrambling,” Day said. “He was running a post route right there and had exactly the call on that we wanted, and he felt like Justin was in scramble-mode, because Justin does a lot of creating, and so they just weren’t on the same page.”
Fields confirmed the miscommunication.
“That happens in life, and you can’t really do anything about it, so you have to move on,” he said.
Missed reads forced Fields into tough situations and decisions all night long, as he finished 30-for-46 with 320 yards, one touchdown and two picks.
Day was disappointed with the outcome of the contest, as mistakes cost the Buckeyes a chance to play for the National Championship.
“When two great teams get together, it comes down to a few great plays, and it did again tonight, but this was a very strange game,” Day said. “It wasn’t good enough in the end, but we were right there,” Day said. “It wasn’t like our guys didn’t play hard enough, our guys didn’t execute well, we didn’t make big plays. We did all those things and just came up short in the end. We were right there all the way to the end, that’s the way it goes.”
Ohio State failed to capitalize on opportunities to swing momentum, as well as maintain possession.
A roughing-the-punter penalty kept Clemson on the field, leading to a Tiger touchdown.
“We were trying to be aggressive,” Day said. “We thought that we could get after the punt, and we’ve done a good job of staying off the punter and being aggressive and we didn’t there, so that was a big play in the game as well.”
Day said the team responded even with the emotional rollercoaster that missed opportunities provided.
“It didn’t get us down,” Day said. “We kept swinging all the way to the end. I couldn’t be prouder of the way we responded because those were hard to swallow. The older guys and seniors have left a legacy, and the younger guys have to learn from it. We’ll wake up in the morning, the sun will come up and we’ll regroup.”