Ohio State has played Clemson in football only five times. A short series, yet each game is loaded with interest. Three of the five have taken place as part of the College Football Playoff – all in the semifinal round. The series record was 4-0 in the Tigers’ favor when Justin Fields, Chris Olave, and Trey Sermon took them down, 49-28, in the 2020 CFP. Did that victory do the trick, or are the Buckeyes still cursed by some bad Clemson Tigers juju?
Not many teams hold a series advantage over the Ohio State Buckeyes. With at least five games in the series, only four other teams have a series edge over the Buckeyes: Alabama (1-4), TTUN (51-59-6), Southern Cal (10-13-1), and Stanford (2-3). The Bucks are 4-4-1 against UCLA. That’s it. The series histories against the Trojans and Wolverines are storied; the series against the Tide is another story. But Clemson? The Clemson games are largely recent, and, by and large, they’re ugly.
Dec. 29, 1978, Gator Bowl: Clemson 17, Ohio State 15
Anyone who follows Ohio State football history knows about this first meeting between the two teams. And what makes it known occurred late in the game, on the sidelines, and after the game.
Clemson came into the match a little shell-shocked. Coach Charlie Pell had taken over the program for the 1977 season and went 8-3-1, a great year for the Tigers. He improved upon that mark the following year. In 1978, the Tigers lost early to Georgia, 12-0, then won their next 10 games to finish the regular season 10-1. And Pell quit to take the head coaching job at Florida. The Gators were in the SEC, and Clemson’s ACC conference was primarily built around basketball.
Clemson quickly named 30-year-old Danny Ford as interim head coach and hoped for the best. He would face the Buckeyes’ iconic Woody Hayes, head coach since 1951. Ford said that, during the pregame presser, he felt like asking Woody for his autograph. Ford would lead the Tigers to the national championship a few years later.
The Buckeyes were suffering an off year, coming into the Gator Bowl at 7-3-1. And fans and administrators were tiring of Woody Hayes. His style was stale; his temper was uncontrolled. The game started calmly enough. Ohio State’s early field goal was followed by a Clemson touchdown, which made the score 7-3, Clemson. Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter ran the ball in for a short TD to put the Bucks ahead. But the extra point attempt was blocked, and that lost point would come back to haunt OSU.
A 47-yard Clemson field goal put the Tigers up 10-9 at the half. The third quarter’s only points came on an 83-yard Tiger touchdown drive, and Clemson led after three, 17-9. Schlichter scored his second rushing touchdown midway through the final period, but his two-point attempt was stopped short. The Bucks trailed 17-15 at the 8:11 mark.
When Clemson QB Steve Fuller fumbled and the Buckeyes recovered in Tiger territory, OSU had a chance. Then it happened. Schlichter’s pass was intercepted by Clemson defensive lineman Charlie Bauman, who was tackled by Schlichter on the Buckeye sideline. As Bauman was getting up after the play, Woody charged down the sideline, reportedly cursing at the opposing player, and then slugged Bauman in the throat. Hayes continued to rage after the incident.
Clemson ran out the clock and won the game. Hayes was fired while his team was returning to Columbus. The Clemson monkey is climbing onto the Buckeyes’ back.
Jan. 3, 2014, Orange Bowl: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35
This game was an offensive display by two good teams, each of which brought a 12-1 record into the contest. OSU had 27 first downs to Clemson’s 24, but the Tigers outgained the Buckeyes, 576 yards to 427. Clemson was led by QB Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, whose 16 catches for 227 yards set an Orange Bowl record. Braxton Miller, at quarterback, and Carlos Hyde, at running back, paced the Bucks.
The game again came down to a late interception. As OSU drove for the winning score, a Miller pass was picked off, and Clemson again ran the clock. The loss to Clemson was disappointing for the Buckeyes and head coach Urban Meyer. In his first season (2012), Meyer had gone unbeaten, but his Buckeyes were ineligible for postseason action. In 2013, Ohio State again won all 12 of their regular season games, giving Meyer a run of 24 straight wins to launch his Buckeye career. A 10-point loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, followed by the Orange Bowl loss, left the Buckeyes smarting. They’d take care of business the next year.
Dec. 31, 2016, Fiesta Bowl, CFP semifinals: Clemson 31, Ohio State 0
The score of this one pretty much says it all, but not quite. It was the first shutout suffered by an Urban Meyer team. The Deshaun Watson-led Tigers went on to beat Bama in the championship and were, in my estimation, clearly the nation’s best team. Nevertheless, the Bucks, losing only to Penn State (by three) and ranked No. 2, entered the game 3.5-point favorites. I’m rather glad that I kept my money in my pocket.
Here are some stats that tell the sad story. Clemson had 24 first downs, OSU 9. Clemson rushed for 205 yards, OSU 88. Clemson passed for another 265, while J.T. Barrett passed for 127 with two interceptions. Total yards were 470-215. The only bright spot was Curtis Samuel’s 67 rushing yards on only six attempts. Barrett carried the ball 11 times (sacks included) for -2 yards.
The Buckeyes seemed to be cursed by the Clemson Tigers. But the 2019 playoff game was yet to come.
Dec. 28, 2019, Fiesta Bowl, CFP semifinals. Clemson 29, Ohio State 23
I’ve been following Ohio State football for over 60 years, and this game is the one that broke my heart. With Justin Fields, Chase Young, J.K Dobbins, Chris Olave, Jordan Fuller, this Buckeye team was the best I had seen, the best-balanced pass/run and offense/defense. Clemson, with Trevor Lawrence leading the attack, was no slouch. Both teams were 13-0 coming in.
We all know the story. The Buckeyes took a lead of 16-0 in the second quarter, but they had had to settle for field goals on several drives, missing opportunities to put Clemson away. The defense was holding up, though, at least until Shaun Wade’s sack was changed into a targeting penalty. The play gave the Tigers new life and turned the tide of the game.
Then there was the reversed call of Jeff Okudah’s strip fumble and recovery for an apparent touchdown. Then, the crusher when Olave broke off his route and Fields’ pass into the endzone was picked off. Buckeye fans still can see Olave making that catch for the game-winning score. Clemson led the head-to-head series 4-0.
Jan. 1, 2021, Sugar Bowl, CFP semifinals: Ohio State 49, Clemson 28
Given the very strange, pandemic-riddled season of 2020, this rematch seemed unlikely all year. First, it appeared that there wouldn’t be a season, then there was a short one, with games suddenly cancelled. TTUN chickened out of coming to Columbus, and the Big Ten changed the rules to allow Ohio State to participate in the Big Ten Championship game. They won, were undefeated, and were invited to New Orleans.
From the start, it looked to be another close one. Fields and Lawrence were again the opposing QBs, and the game was tied 14-14 at the end of the first quarter. The second period, however, was all Buckeyes. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert caught two TD passes, and Olave pulled in one of his own between the two Ruckert scores. Halftime: OSU 35, Clemson 14.
Lawrence tightened the game a bit with a 10-yard strike, but a 56-yarder to Olave at the 4:55 mark and a fourth-quarter TD pass to Jameson Williams for 45 yards sealed the deal. A late Tiger touchdown made the final 49-28. “Satisfying” isn’t a strong enough word for the feeling after this game. The Bucks accumulated 639 total yards, and Fields threw six TD passes. Trey Sermon was just short of 200 rushing yards.
Because of contractual agreements locking ACC teams into the conference until the mid-2030s, Clemson is likely to stay put. Though, who knows? Nor do we know what will become of the CFP. Unless there’s a significant change, though, Clemson is likely to continue to dominate the ACC in football and make appearances in the playoff. It’s also likely that they will occasionally (often?) face the Buckeyes there.
Has the monkey, the curse, been lifted? I hope so. It would be wonderful if Dabo’s boys became a Buckeye punching bag rather than the others way around.