All this week, LGHL writers will be bring you articles with inspired by their favorite Ohio State theoretical questions. Check out all of our What If? thoughts throughout the week HERE. Whether you disagree, let us know what you think in the comments below and on Twitter @Landgrant33.
Oh, I know that I’m completely obsessed with that game. I’ve written about it before, and when it came to addressing “what if . . . ?” I couldn’t think of anything more worth giving the hypothetical treatment. When it comes to the Fiesta Bowl, played on Dec. 28, 2019, there seem to be dozens of what ifs.
First, there’s the large issue, and, for me, that one is fairly easy. Ohio State lost to Clemson that night 29-23. If the Buckeyes had won, I’m confident that they would have beaten LSU and won the national championship with an undefeated 15-0 record. No question. That star-studded team was the best I’ve seen wearing the scarlet and gray. So, in order to write this piece, I watched the whole game again, fast-forwarding and backing up to look at particular plays, but always knowing sadly that the outcome would be the same. Here’s what I saw.
First, there are the obvious cases of “what if?” What if Chris Olave had held his route with 43 seconds remaining? Olave says that he would have caught the pass for a game-tying touchdown. The extra point would have won it. What if Shaun Wade hadn’t been called for targeting with 4:53 left in the first half and the Bucks ahead 16-0? Clemson would have needed to punt instead of getting new life that led to their first touchdown, changing the momentum instantly; just as important, the Buckeyes would have had Wade to cover the Tigers’ speedy receivers.
New life again for Clemson and another TD to take the lead after a roughing the punter call on a secondary rusher about midway through the third quarter. What if that rusher had pulled up? At 4:45 of the third quarter, What if Jordan Fuller’s fumble recovery for a score hadn’t been (wrongly) reversed on replay? Ohio State would have regained the lead — and the momentum. What if?
That’s a lot of them, but I’m going back to two plays in the second quarter and ask the startling question: What if J.K. Dobbins didn’t drop the ball? Twice? I realize that J.K. had glorious moments in the game. He scored OSU’s first touchdown on a dazzling 68-yard run with 8:33 left in the first quarter. Then, at the end of the first quarter, Dobbins broke loose again and ran for 64 yards. But he was caught from behind and tackled on the Clemson seven. J.K. seemed to run out of gas on the play. It didn’t matter, though. The Bucks had a ten-point lead and first and goal.
It turned out to matter a lot. An incomplete pass and a short Dobbins run left it third and goal. Dobbins rolled right, caught the short pass, and dove into the end zone for a touchdown! The Ohio State team and fans went wild as they prepared for the extra point. But wait. The replay showed (and, I must say, clearly showed) that Dobbins didn’t control the ball to the ground. He dropped it. The Bucks settled for another field goal and went up 13-0. What if he had held on?
Then, at just about exactly half way through the second quarter, Ohio State was threatening yet again with the ball on the Clemson 16-yard line. The Clemson pass rush had been causing severe problems the last few possessions, and the coaches called for a screen pass to the left. It set up beautifully. Dobbins was wide open with two, maybe three blockers well positioned in front of him. I looked ahead and saw a sure TD.
J.K. apparently was looking ahead too. Just as the perfect pass from Justin Fields arrived, Dobbins turned his head upfield. And dropped the ball. Another field goal, and Ohio State led 16-0. Clemson would go on to score the next 21 points.
In the first half, the Buckeyes had three trips to the Red Zone without a touchdown. The game’s first series was a spectacular display of Fields’ passing to gifted receivers. Close in, though, they ran out of space, and the Clemson defense toughened, setting up the first field goal. Fair enough. A little disappointing, but I don’t blame anyone for that one.
Dobbins’s drops, however, led to the other two field goals. What if Ohio State had gotten TDs instead on the drops in the end zone and on the screen pass? The score would have been 24-0, rather than 16-0. A big deal? Well, the final loss was by six points. But more interestingly, if Clemson were down that much, there would be some desperation.
At the end of the first quarter, OSU led in total yardage 222-77. The Bucks were ready to put Clemson away for good and do it early, just as they did a year later in 2020. The Tigers got back in the game with long runs by Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence. Would they be calling running plays down by that much? Probably not. It would have been a different game, and maybe, just maybe, Ryan Day would have brought home a national championship in his first season as Ohio State’s head coach.