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The State of Ohio State Football, Part II: The Legacy of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl

Two and a half months later, a look back at what this loss means in for Buckeye football now and going forward.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Does it feel like the end of the world right now? For many Ohio State fans, that sense of dread already presented itself in the waning days of 2019.

Last season’s birth of a new era in Buckeye football came to a crashing halt in the College Football Playoff semifinal when Clemson once again sent Ohio State home for the rest of winter break. The out-of-conference monkey that the Buckeyes just never seem to get off their backs once again shattered any hopes of national glory, though the result came in significantly more competitive fashion than last time around.

Clemson was always going to be the worst team for Ohio State to match up against in the Playoff, which is why losing the top overall seed to LSU during the selection show stung so badly. Anyone that viewed all of five minutes of Big 12 football in 2019 knew that Oklahoma’s defense was ripe for an out-of-conference annihilation, and that top spot in the rankings served as more of a BYE to the championship game than anything else. Joe Burrow validated that stance when he lost the ability to count on one hand how many touchdown passes he threw against the Sooners with over four minutes left in the first half. He finished the game with over 500 total yards of offense and eight total TDs.

By comparison, Clemson appeared insurmountable. They were the defending national champions with the greatest backfield tandem in ACC history and a defense with enough collective speed to make Sonic the Hedgehog look like Tuf Borland. Ohio State spent a great deal of their conference schedule bulldozing through some of the best defenses in college football, but had yet to face a team as well rounded as Clemson. The Tigers were one of the only teams in the country that could match up with the Buckeyes along both sides of the line of scrimmage, and arguably boasted even greater talent in many respects.

Victory was never going to come easily, but what made the loss so particularly devastating was the lack of any doubt about the talent level of this Ohio State team. Justin Fields ran the Buckeye offense with an historic level of aerial efficiency in conjunction with a relentless rushing attack spearheaded by J.K. Dobbins and an offensive line that mauled everything in its path all season long. Two of the top three projected picks in the upcoming NFL Draft led a defense that contained playmakers and depth at all levels. It’s easy to forget this team raced out to a 16-0 lead in the first half of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl.

But teams adjust, fate twists in bizarre ways, and breaks don’t always go the way they should. Justin Fields was one miscommunication on a broken route with Chris Olave away from keeping Ohio State in a position to win the game in its dying moments. This was not a “choke,” players certainly did everything but “not show up,” and the moment certainly was never too big for anybody on the field that night. Fans absolutely must keep that perspective regardless of the other things that transpired over the course of the game.

But there were a bunch of other things that happened, and it’s important that they aren’t forgotten when evaluating what this loss meant to Ohio State football.

Lets keep things internally focused before examining the opponent and other third parties. Ohio State’s red zone execution just didn’t cut it in this one. Losing a game by six points after having to kick three low-risk field goals in the first half is fairly distressing in retrospect. Furthermore, for all of Dobbins’ brilliance as one of the best running backs in school history, he dropped wide open touchdown passes in each half of this game that ultimately served as the difference in the score. The first instance came on a somewhat controversial replay overturn of the on-field call of a touchdown catch, but it wasn’t ambiguous enough to merit an outraged reaction.

As many are already aware, officiating certainly factored into the result of the game—and it will receive an addressing shortly. But any shortcomings in that area don’t absolve the Buckeyes from beating themselves in many respects simply by failing to execute. Perhaps nothing exemplifies that better than the fact that this game ended on a quarterback and receiver failing to be on the same page if only for a few seconds of one play. The unfortunate reality of hotly contested football games is that the margins of error are always slim and consistently fatal for those that fall on the wrong side of them.

Conversely, Clemson grew up a ton in the second half of this game. They received justifiable criticism all season long for not having any true challenges come their way in a pathetically watered-down ACC that presented no legitimate threats. Their greatest trial to that point came from Mack Brown at the reigns of a basketball school’s football team.

Trevor Lawrence had to lead his team from behind for the first time all season, and he did so masterfully. The man looks like a high elf straight out of an Elder Scrolls video game and plays the quarterback position with the same level of magical aptitude. The touchdown run he had in the final two minutes of the first half probably had Lamar Jackson blushing somewhere in Baltimore. Lawrence reminded everybody in this game why he’s one of the only freshman quarterbacks to ever win a national championship as a starter, putting up 366 yards of total offense with three touchdowns and no turnovers. He absolutely deserves to be the front-runner for next season’s Heisman Trophy, somewhat poetically with Fields as a close second.

Travis Etienne was everything in this game that J.K. Dobbins was not, which is saying something considering Dobbins finished with close to 100 more yards from scrimmage than what Etienne posted. But the statistically-greatest running back in ACC history pulled off the rare feat of leading his team in receiving yards and touchdowns from the halfback position, thanks to reliable hands and the ability to finish off big plays with scores. As complete of a player as Dobbins was during the final year of his college career, this game proved those two aforementioned traits still remain out of his reach.

But enough self-criticism and praise of the enemy. This game will not be remembered for Ohio State’s lack of red zone execution or Clemson’s ability to bounce back.

This game’s legacy rests squarely on the shoulders of the officials and replay reviewers.

That’s not me being a salty sore loser, that was the general consensus of those watching long after the game ended:

Three different analysts—or two analysts and one lord of the memes—from three different networks all agree that Ohio State got hosed by lousy officiating. That will always be the true legacy of this game.

It’s a shame, because these two plays in question and a handful of others notwithstanding, many considered this to be the greatest Playoff semifinal game other than the Oklahoma/Georgia Rose Bowl shootout from 2018. Instead, it merely lives on as the cherry on top of a season widely considered to be a low point for officiating across all levels of football.

Or maybe this game doesn’t live on at all, because people remember winners. Clemson won this game but lost the more important next one. The 2019-2020 College Football Playoff will forever be the time when Joe Burrow posted over a thousand yards of total offense and 14 total touchdowns. It’s fair to wonder if the Buckeyes would have even had a chance against their former reserve signal caller with the way he was playing at the end of the year. The greatest two game stretch by a quarterback in college football history came at the hands of a son of Ohio, so take some solace in that fact.

Looking ahead to next season, it’s hard to shake the idea that Ohio State’s road to a national championship still goes through Clemson. Lawrence and Etienne are both somehow back for a third run at a title next season, and the ACC is still lightyears away from a second modern program in the conference on the level of the Tigers. Regardless of where the seeds may end up nine months from now, these two appear destined to clash in the Playoff again for what would be the third time in the last five years.

But for Buckeye fans still drowning in agony over what might have been, it’s best to just let those dreams go. The Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the ending any Ohio State fan wanted, but in the grand scheme of college football, it shouldn’t haunt anyone in Columbus or beyond that doesn’t don a grey helmet every Saturday in the fall.

Mistakes happen, bad refs happen a lot nowadays, and Joe Burrow happened. Shit happens, but the future is still shining bright (more on that soon in Part III).