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No. 3 Clemson comes back against No. 2 Ohio State in Fiesta Bowl slugfest 29-23

The Tigers will play No. 1 LSU in the National Championship Game.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes got off to a fast start, but after a huge momentum shift following a questionable targeting call, it was the No. 3 Clemson Tigers who would storm back to hand Ryan Day his first loss as head coach in a 29-23 Fiesta Bowl victory. The Bucks seemed to dominate for much of the first half, but the inability to capitalize in the red zone and extremely untimely penalties and injuries severely hindered their performance.

Justin Fields would wind up still donning a decently bulky knee brace in the game, but it did not seem to alter his abilities all that much as he was still able to hit his receivers and tuck and run when the play necessitated it. J.K. Dobbins was the real star of the show for the Buckeyes, running it nine times for 142 yards and and touchdown in the first half alone. However, Dobbins would tweak his ankle in the closing minutes of the second quarter, and would head to the locker room in the third quarter, but would return and play through obvious pain the rest of the way.

On the other side of the ball, Trevor Lawrence was doing what he usually does — putting up big numbers both through the air and with his feet. The Ohio State defense kept him in check early, but the sophomore QB was able to work his way into a rhythm and cut a 16-point deficit to just two by the end of the second quarter. Momentum was fully on their side coming out of the break, and they capitalized time and time again.

In the end, the Buckeyes failure to get touchdowns in the red zone and the inability to get out of their own way in terms of penalties — including a questionable targeting call on Shaun Wade — led to their demise. Lawrence and the Tigers capitalized on momentum heading into halftime and continued it into the second half, able to have increased success against a man-down OSU secondary. Ohio State was unable to shake the bad taste out of its mouth, and the season came to a bitter end once again at the hands of Dabo Swinney.

Clemson won the coin toss and elected to defer, and it was Justin Fields and Ohio State who began with the ball on offense. Fields completed a screen pass to K.J. Hill on the first play of the game and we were underway. A pass over the middle to Luke Farrell had the Buckeyes past midfield, and after a spectacular grab by Garrett Wilson, OSU was in business inside the five.

The drive would come to a halt thanks in part to some slippery grass, and the Bucks would be forced to settle for a field goal as they took a 3-0 on their first possession. An uncomfortable recurring theme throughout the first half.

The Tigers picked up a quick first down on their first offensive possession utilizing some nicely designed zone read plays. Trevor Lawrence was making all the correct decision on a few option run plays, and Clemson quickly had the ball down near the 40. After Ohio State came away with a big stop on 3rd-and-7, Tigers kicker B.T. Potter missed a 49-yard field goal wide right as the Buckeyes regained possession.

It didn’t take long for the Buckeyes to flex their muscles on the ground, as J.K. Dobbins took the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive 68 yards to the house for a touchdown. Dobbins juked the Tigers safety out of his shoes and burst up the middle of the field untouched into the end zone as Ohio State took an early 10-0 lead.

The Buckeyes forced Clemson into an early 3rd-and-10 scenario, but Lawrence made a spectacular play rolling out of the pocket to find a receiver 27 yards downfield for a first down with Chase Young bearing down on him. Faced immediately with another third down, Tyreke Smith was able to swat the ball down at the line of scrimmage to force a Tiger punt, as OSU regained possession inside its own 10-yard line.

After a false start backed the Buckeyes up on second down, K.J. Hill made a great move in the open field to fake out a defender and pick up a 3rd-and-14.

Ultimately, Fields would get sacked following a new set of downs and, after a bit of a short punt, Clemson took over near midfield. The offensive series for the Tigers was not all that much better, as a sack by Tyler Friday on third down forced another punt — this time going into the end zone for a touchback.

Starting to show shades of Ezekiel Elliott’s playoff run in 2014, Dobbins once again was able to burst free as he nearly took it to the house, tripped up after a 64-yard pickup to put Ohio State inside the 10-yard line. With the long run, Dobbins broke Eddie George’s Ohio State single-season rushing record set in 1995.

Unfortunately, a wheel route to Dobbins initially called a touchdown was overturned after the refs ruled that he didn’t control it to the ground, and the Buckeyes would once again be forced to kick a field goal in the red zone, now leading 13-0 early in the second quarter.

It was another quick three-and-out for Clemson as Ohio State’s offense retook the field searching for a touchdown this time around. Austin Mack picked up a first down with an impressive grab for 24 yards as the Buckeyes neared midfield.

After picking up a 3rd-and-1 with a QB sneak, Fields escaped a sack and rushed up the middle for 21 yards down to the 23-yard line.

Dobbins would wind up dropping what looked like a sure-fire touchdown on a screen play had he hung onto the ball, and again OSU would be held to a field goal as they took a 16-0 with 7:20 left until halftime.

The Buckeye defense was playing incredibly well, but Ohio State now had three drives stall in the red zone, having to settle for field goals. Clemson wasn’t going to stay scoreless forever, and it felt, at least early on, as if leaving points on the board was going to come back to hurt OSU in the end, and it did quickly.

The Tigers started to get the ball moving a little bit with the help of Lawrence’s feet and some dump offs to Travis Etienne. After what looked like a huge sack on third down by Shaun Wade on a corner blitz, it was reviewed and called for targeting as Wade was ejected for the rest of the game.

One play later, his replacement, Amir Riep, was called for pass interference as the refs handed Clemson the entire field, now with the ball just outside the red zone. A few plays later, Etienne broke a tackle and pushed his way into the end zone to put the Tigers on the board, now trailing just 16-7 after an incredibly questionable and costly call.

Issues for Ohio State really began to compound themselves as the first three-and-out of the game for the Buckeyes forced a punt, and Clemson would takeover with about two minutes remaining and a chance to undo almost all of OSU’s hard work before halftime. They would do exactly that, as Lawrence took off up the middle for a 67-yard touchdown and despite dominating the entire first half, Ohio State led just 16-14 at halftime.

Things continued to look bad for the Buckeyes right out of the half, as they were called for pass interference on the first play of the Clemson drive. They would get fortunate, however, as Tee Higgins dropped a pass on third down to force a punt, but Ohio State would begin deep in their own territory at the 3-yard line.

It would not be good news for the Buckeyes, as after tweaking his ankle at the end of the first half, Dobbins tried to check back in but was immediately taken to the locker room in clear pain. Ohio State’s drive would keep on chugging however, as back-to-back completions to Hill and Chris Olave had the ball near midfield. Things would ultimately stall and the punt team would come out, but the OSU punt would pin Clemson on the 1-yard line to begin its next drive.

The Tigers were forced to punt, but a roughing the punter call on Ohio State would give Clemson the ball right back. Things just keep going from bad to worse as Jeff Okudah was shaken up on the play. Everything that could possibly go wrong appeared to be going wrong for the Buckeyes all at once.

Just like that, Etienne took a screen pass 58 yards to the house as the wheels were now completely falling off for Ohio State on both sides of the ball. The Buckeye offense would not stop the bleeding, and a sack of Fields on third down forced yet another punt as Clemson looked to take full command of the game.

It appeared as though the Silver Bullets came away with a monumental scoop and score on what was initially called a fumble return TD, but upon further review it was ruled an incomplete pass as the Tigers were instead forced to punt.

It wouldn’t matter, as Fields would wind up throwing an interception on 3rd-and-8 to give Clemson the ball right back. They would not capitalize on the Buckeye turnover, and a sack by Baron Browning on third down put the OSU offense back on the field following a punt.

Fields was trying his best to will Ohio State back into the game, putting together a pretty masterful drive on the ensuing offensive possession. Quick throws got the Buckeyes all the way down to just outside the red zone, but it looked like things were in danger as OSU was faced with a 4th-and-2. Instead of trying to push it up the middle for the two yards, Day elected to roll the dice and was paid handsomely for his gamble as Chris Olave hauled in a 23-yard TD pass to retake a 23-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Buckeye defense looked to be feeding off of the energy of the offense, and would once against force a Clemson punt as Fields and the gang started with the ball deep in their own territory yet again. After Fields was sacked to force a 2nd-and-21, a holding call against the Tigers gave OSU a free first down. Fields barely picked up a first down 3rd-and-1 with a QB sneak, and a catch across the middle had Ohio State past midfield. Unfortunately, the drive would come to a halt near the Clemson 40-yard line.

Day would have to rely on his defense to make a stop with a little over three minutes left and Lawrence getting the ball inside his own 10-yard line.

For really the first time all night, the Buckeye defense got gashed a few times in a row and Clemson quickly had the ball in field goal range. Lawrence was not comfortable resting on his laurels, and instead nailed a jump-pass over the middle for a 34-yard touchdown to Etienne, taking a 29-23 lead — getting the two-point conversion — with just 1:49 remaining in the game. The game would rest on the shoulders of Justin Fields and the Ohio State offense with one final shot to escape with a victory.

The Buckeyes picked up a few chunk plays in a row quickly, featuring multiple check downs to Dobbins to get the ball all the way down to the Clemson 30 with still 1:09 to go. It looked like the comeback might be completed, but it was not to be. Miscommunication between Fields and Olave led to an interception in the end zone, and Ohio State’s season came to a bitter end in Arizona.