Ohio State had a lot of reasons to come out hungry in this year’s Sugar Bowl. After their heartbreaking loss to Clemson a year ago, this game was exactly what Ryan Day and his team have been preparing for since that final whistle. Justin Fields needed to find redemption after his game-ending interception in that contest and a few let-down performances in the 2020 campaign, and he would need to do so against one of the best teams in the country.
The Buckeyes shocked the world on Friday night, dispatching the Tigers 49-28 in New Orleans. After allowing an easy touchdown on Clemson’s first drive of the game, the Silver Bullets locked in and made life hard for Trevor Lawrence the rest of the way. On the other side of the ball, Fields was incredible, throwing for 385 yards and six touchdowns despite playing the entire second half through injury. In a game that nobody gave them a chance to win, Ohio State got all of the sweet revenge they could ask for.
It has been a bit tough at times to enjoy this college football season, especially when half the week is spent wondering whether or not that weekend’s game will be played at all and which players would be missing per COVID-19 protocols. The Big Ten has done Ohio State absolutely no favors this year with their questionable decision making from the very beginning, and as a result of poor planning and a lack of critical thinking, the Buckeyes wound up playing just six games leading into the College Football Playoff.
Playing through a pandemic was going to have its hurdles, and Ohio State was hit with yet another roadblock on Friday night as they found out they would be without multiple key players for the Sugar Bowl after some positive COVID-19 tests. Among those listed as unavailable against the Tigers included defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday, running back Master Teague, and offensive lineman Harry Miller. On top of that, Justin Fields had a wrap on the thumb he injured against Northwestern.
On a positive note, they did see the return of both Chris Olave and Baron Browning. The losses of Harrison and Friday appeared to be pretty huge, as getting a pass rush against Trevor Lawrence would be critical to the team’s success. Ohio State has shown depth along the offensive line throughout this season when most of the unit missed the Michigan State game, and with Trey Sermon emerging as the top back in the B1G title game, the Buckeyes would just have to weather the storm at those positions playing without a full deck once again.
An ugly start
Clemson began with the ball first, and the offense clearly read the scouting report on this Ohio State defense. The Tigers looked to attack the Buckeyes on the outside early with a bunch of success. The secondary continued to play its soft coverage on the first few sets of downs, and Lawrence picked them apart with quick throws and outside zone runs. Having Tuf Borland in man coverage against Travis Etienne was clearly not the move either, as the overmatched linebacker got burnt for a 26-yard pickup.
After Cornell Powell hauled in an impressive 27-yard catch for Clemson over the head of Sevyn Banks, Clemson was quickly inside the red zone. It wouldn't take long for the Tigers to find pay dirt, as Lawrence out-raced Baron Browning to the edge for a walk-in touchdown. Big plays have hurt the Buckeyes all season long, and it was more of the same on Clemson’s first drive of the night. With the Ohio State offense suffering a quick three-and-out, Ryan Day’s team found themself in an early hole.
Big play Trey
It’s tough to expect a similar performance to what we saw out of Trey Sermon his last time out. The Oklahoma transfer ran for an unbelievable 331 yards against Northwestern — a Big Ten Championship record and an Ohio State program record. The last time we saw a Buckeye RB go off like that in the postseason was Ezekiel Elliott in 2014, and we all know how that run ended. It would seem unlikely for him to recreate what Elliott did in that College Football Playoff run, but if Sermon could transfer even just a little bit of that magic from last time out into Friday night, the Buckeyes would be in great shape.
We got a small glimpse of that on Ohio State’s second drive of the night. After picking up their first first down of the night on a short pass to Chris Olave over the middle, Sermon picked up a huge gain on the ground as he broke a tackle and took it down the sideline for 34 yards. On the very next play, he followed it up with a 32-yard scamper through the left side of the offensive line for a walk-in touchdown, and just like that the Buckeyes had things all tied up at 7-7.
As a whole Sermon was spectacular against the Tigers, rushing for nearly 200 yards with a touchdown and adding another four catches for 61 yards. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry against the vaunted Clemson defense as the senior has clearly found another gear in the postseason.
Tight End U!?
Here’s a shocking statistic for you — Ohio State hadn’t completed a pass to a tight end coming into tonight since the third game of the season against Rutgers. Early on in the year it looked as though the oft-overlooked position group was due for a much bigger campaign than in the past. Every offseason we go in asking if this is finally the year the Buckeyes utilize the tight ends in the passing game, and with Luke Farrell and Jeremey Ruckert getting involved early, it looked as though that would be the case.
Obviously that did not come to fruition, but early on in the Sugar Bowl the tight ends both came up huge with touchdowns. The first went to Farrell, who boxed out his corner in the end zone on a crucial third down play to haul in an impressive and seemingly unlikely touchdown catch. The second was a beautifully designed play to Ruckert, as Ohio State sent everyone in motion to the left then reversed and hit him wide open on the right hash for a 17-yard score. With the two also making big plays in the blocking game, the Buckeye tight ends were of the utmost importance to kick things off.
Ruckert caught his second touchdown of the game later in the second quarter, as Day was clearly making a concerted effort in his play calling to get his tight ends the ball. Clemson struggled a bit to cover Notre Dame’s tight end’s earlier this year, and Ohio State looked to attack that potential weakness as much as possible.
Arguably the biggest play in last year’s Fiesta Bowl was when Shaun Wade was ejected for targeting on a questionable call. Coming in off a corner blitz, Wade leaned down to hit Lawrence in the midsection, but Lawrence braced for impact and in doing so lowered his own helmet down as the two collided, resulted in targeting. It was a huge momentum changer, as the call came on third down and it knocked Wade out for the remainder of the game. The Tigers would score on the new set of downs.
On Friday night, a similar call happened early in the Sugar Bowl — except this time it went against Clemson. On a 3rd-and-long scramble, Fields took the ball up the middle and ended up just short, but he was met hard by linebacker James Skalski. Fields was down on the ground for quite a bit, and in the meantime the refs went to the monitor to review the play for targeting. After another look, Skalski led with his helmet right into the back of Fields, and he was ejected from the game.
Shortly thereafter, Fields returned to the game and found Chris Olave in the end zone for a touchdown to extend the Ohio State lead to 28-14. It was almost a mirror image of what happened a year ago, but this call went the Buckeyes’ way instead. Fields was clearly hurt on the play, however, and appeared to be in pain for the rest of the game.
Making up for it
Perhaps nobody wanted this game more than Chris Olave. After it was his cutback on the final route in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl that led to the game-ending interception, the wide receiver took it very hard. Obviously the loss was not solely on his shoulders with everything else that happened that night, but he knew that there was a chance for the Buckeyes to come away victorious if it weren’t for the rarest of mental mistakes. As one of Ohio State’s best players on the offensive side of the ball, you know Olave wanted this one badly.
The junior made the most of his second chance in the rematch, catching six passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns in a spectacular performance for the future NFL Draft pick. He hauled in a nice grab in the corner of the end zone in the first half to extend Ohio State’s lead to 28-14, and he made one of the plays of the game in the second half when he burned his defender and secured a massive 56-yard TD to put the Buckeyes up 42-21 midway through the third quarter. After how his season ended last year, it was really nice to see a talented player like Olave have such a stellar game the second time around.
Hold this for me real quick...