Ohio State’s loss in the Fiesta Bowl is one that will haunt Buckeye fans for a very long time. It would be one thing if Clemson came into the game and just straight up dominated. Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the better team that day, like what happened in the matchup in 2016. However, it was the way that Ohio State lost this game, and everything that went into spelling its ultimate demise that left fans of the Scarlet and Gray wondering “what if.”
It is rarely one play or one blown call that loses a team the game over the course of 60 minutes, and that wasn’t the case on Saturday. There were some questionable calls for sure, and it seemed as though every 50/50 play went against the Buckeyes, but at the end of the day even with everything stacked against them, Ohio State was good enough to have the ball with a chance to win the game on the final drive.
It would not be a stretch to say that the Buckeyes were the better team in that game. They out-gained the Tigers by nearly 100 yards, had seven more first downs, and were dominating on the defensive side before losing one of their best players to an ejection. None of that matters in the end, as Ohio State lost the game. Let’s take a look at some of the plays that led to the heartbreaking outcome — some small, some large.
On the very first Ohio State drive of the game, something happened that flew under the radar given the rest of the night’s events. Garrett Wilson made a spectacular leaping grab to get the Buckeyes down near the red zone as Ryan Day surprised the Clemson defense coming out with an air attack. Initially ruled a catch, replay officials decided to take another look to determine if Wilson got down in bounds.
They would rule that it was indeed a catch, but in their delayed decision to review OSU had already began to run another play, with the offensive line creating a huge hole for J.K. Dobbins on the left side. If Dobbins was able to make one move and beat the safety, as he did later on in the game, this play likely goes for a touchdown. Instead, the stoppage in play slowed down Ohio State’s momentum, and the drive would wind up stalling and only resulting in a field goal.
Chances to take the ball away from Trevor Lawrence are rare, and Ohio State had a big one early on. Tuf Borland dropped what could have easily been a pick-six with nobody in front of him on the play, but instead the ball slipped through his hands and fell innocently to the turf. Clemson would wind up missing a field goal on the drive, but this could have easily been six points for the Buckeyes and a big feather in the cap of the Ohio State defense.
A couple plays after K.J. Hill was held in the end zone on a play that may have resulted in a touchdown, Ohio State appeared to score on a wheel route pass to Dobbins. Initially ruled a TD on the field, the play would be reviewed, and it was ruled that he did not complete the catch to the ground and the play would result in an incomplete pass.
It was the correct call, but just another bad break for the Buckeyes. The ball was a tad overthrown, but the play call was excellent and Ohio State was likely just a few inches away from taking a 17-0 lead. Instead, it was once again a chip-shot field goal and despite what felt like early domination for the boys in Scarlet, OSU led just 13-0.
Day came into the game knowing Clemson’s defensive coordinator Brent Venables loves to be aggressive and send all sorts of different blitz packages at you. Whats the perfect play to beat a blitz coming from the middle? A screen pass, and Ohio State drew up a perfect one. A rare mistake from the star running back, Dobbins looked upfield before he secured the ball and wound up dropping the pass that almost certainly would've been six points. Instead, another field goal was the result of the drive.
This was one of two massive calls that completely changed the game from the replay booth. Shaun Wade came unblocked on a corner blitz and drilled Lawrence for a sack, one that would have brought up 4th-and-13 and another Clemson punt. While there were no flags in real time, Lawrence stayed down in some pain for a few seconds, and as a result the officials decided to take another look.
Upon further review, Wade was called for targeting and ejected from the game. While the call was correct based on the letter of the law, the rule itself is the issue here. Wade was clearly not trying to injure Lawrence on this play or create helmet to helmet contact. He simply leaned down to try and hit the QB at center mass. However, Lawrence braced for impact, and as a result lowered his own helmet which would end up creating targeting.
This penalty would give Clemson the ball back with a free first down, and after immediately going after Wade’s replacement and drawing a pass interference call, the Tigers would end up with a touchdown on the drive. Ohio State had to play the rest of the game without its star slot corner. Prior to Wade’s ejection, Clemson had no points and was averaging 4.3 yards per play. Without the starting DB, the Tigers went on to score 29 points and average 8.4 yards per play.
Ohio State looked to play more 4-2-5 sets on defense with Lawrence’s ability to air it out, meaning more playing time for Josh Proctor with two deep safeties instead of just Jordan Fuller like the Buckeyes featured all year long. While the sophomore DB is a budding young star, he still is lacking some of the in-game experience needed for big games like this one. Featured here as the lone high safety with Fuller matched up on the slot receiver, he took a poor route to the QB and missed the tackle as the last line of defense, leading to a long Clemson touchdown.
Dobbins injured his ankle in a pile late in the first half, and on Ohio State’s first possession out of the break tried to test it with no luck. In obvious pain, Dobbins would be taken to the locker room. After re-taping the ankle, the junior RB would return to the game, but was clearly not at 100 percent and was playing through a lot of discomfort. As a result, the Buckeyes ground attack was not as a effective in the second half, severely limiting the offensive output.
Maybe one of the only poor coaching decisions of the game by Day, Ohio State elected to come after the punt rather than just take the ball on a short field. The Bucks would be a little too aggressive on the play, hitting the punter as he was in the air resulting in a 15-yard roughing the punter penalty and a new set of downs. Two plays later, Clemson scored a long TD on a screen pass to Travis Etienne, and just like that the Tigers had their first lead of the game.
By far the most controversial call of the game, Jeff Okudah knocked the ball out of Justyn Ross’ hands and was recovered by Fuller for what should have been a fumble return TD. It was called as such on the field, but obviously was going to be reviewed as it was both a turnover and a scoring play. In real time it had looked like an incomplete pass, but after looking at it in slow motion Ross had taken four or five steps with full possession of the ball before it was knocked out, and even the announcers felt the play would almost certainly stand.
After replay review, the officials had somehow determined they had clear and convincing evidence that it was instead an incomplete pass, and Clemson was given the ball back as the points were taken off the board. The officials’ explanation of the overturned call made zero sense in postgame discussion, and multiple referees at both the collegiate and professional level have come out in support that the call on the field should have stood.
Ohio State would make the stop, but it was a massive blown call in terms of both the scoreboard and momentum in the game.
Maybe one of the forgotten plays in all of the madness of this game, Ohio State’s final punt actually bounced off the back of a Clemson player down near the 5-yard line. If a Buckeye player was closer to the play, they could have recovered what would have been ruled a muffed punt and likely either ran out the clock or punched it into the end zone to ice the game.
Not entirely sure if it was Proctor’s assignment or one of the linebackers, but after playing solid defense for 90 percent of the night, the Silver Bullets completely crumbled with the game on the line. Amari Rodgers found himself wide open over the middle of the field, and after a rare missed tackle by Okudah was already down near field goal range. Up only two, Ohio State basically decided it would be better to just let Clemson score so as not to run it down and kick a game-winning field goal. They would trust their offense to win the game.
Everything seemed to be lining up for Ohio State to win the game with a last-minute touchdown drive. The Buckeyes immediately worked the ball down near the red zone, and still had over 40 seconds remaining and a timeout to boot. Chris Olave was supposed to run the same post route that got them a touchdown on a 4th-and-2 play earlier in the game, as with the team’s red zone struggles they looked to hit a longer play with time and downs to work with.
Instead, Olave had thought Fields began to scramble, and almost simultaneously as the QB released the pass, the wideout tried to change the route and slipped. The ball would float right into the Clemson defenders hands, and the ballgame was over. Had Olave finished the route, it likely would have been six or at the very worst an incompletion. Instead, a miscommunication and some confusion led to one more mistake for Ohio State, one they would not get a chance to overcome as the game and season came to a bitter end.