GLENDALE, Ariz. — The expressions in the locker room were what you’d expect.
Ohio State’s players looked stunned, some with reddened eyes. The Buckeyes’ dream season crashed to an end Saturday night in a 29-23 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Credit the Tigers (14-0) for showing the resilience befitting a defending national champion. But the Buckeyes (13-1) know they squandered a chance to play former teammate Joe Burrow and LSU in the title game on Jan. 13.
“You have something in your grasp and it kind of gets away from you,” safety Jordan Fuller said. “It sucks.”
The Buckeyes led before Clemson drove 94 yards in only four plays for the decisive score with under two minutes left, the final 34 on a pass from Trevor Lawrence to running back Travis Etienne.
“The last drive, people weren't playing their man,” defensive tackle Jashon Cornell said. “We shot ourselves in the foot by missing assignments.”
The Buckeyes had a chance to answer when they drove to the Clemson 23-yard line. On the next play, Fields moved around in the pocket to buy time. Chris Olave broke off his route inside and slipped as he tried to cut outside. Fields threw to the middle of the end zone, where safety Nolan Turner was alone to make the game-clinching interception.
Olave blamed himself after the game.
“He was running a post route right there,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Actually, we had exactly the call on that we wanted. He felt like Justin was in a scramble mode.
“Justin does a lot of creating, so they weren't on the same page. They're playing football, and they're competing. Things like that happen. Unfortunately, that happened to us on the last play of the game when we needed it the most.”
The game might not have come down to those final minutes if not for two controversial calls. The Buckeyes will forever argue about and lament cornerback Shaun Wade’s targeting ejection and the overturned touchdown by safety Jordan Fuller on the fumble that wasn’t.
With the Buckeyes ahead 16-0 with five minutes left before halftime, Wade sacked Lawrence on a third down. But instead of Clemson having to punt, Wade was ruled to have made helmet-to-helmet contact with the quarterback, ending his night.
With Wade out, Clemson’s offense came to life, scoring three unanswered touchdowns to take a 21-16 lead in the third quarter.
The Buckeyes then got what would have been a game-changing play when cornerback Jeff Okudah pried the ball from Justyn Ross as the Clemson receiver took several steps while trying to secure the ball. Fuller picked up the ball and returned it for an apparent touchdown.
But on replay review, the play was ruled an incompletion.
“I thought it should have stood,” Fuller said, “but I'm not paid to be a referee.”
The loss was the first for Day after 16 victories. Ohio State is now 0-4 all-time against Clemson, its worst record against any opponent.
This defeat wasn’t embarrassing like the 31-0 semifinal loss three years ago at this site, or as infamous as Woody Hayes’ career-ending punch in the 1978 Gator Bowl. But given how special this season was for the Buckeyes, this loss was the most painful of the four.
For much of the first half, Ohio State looked poised to turn the game into a rout. J.K. Dobbins ran for 141 yards in the first quarter alone to break Eddie George’s Ohio State season rushing record of 1,927 yards.
But the Buckeyes’ inability to score touchdowns on three trips inside the red zone kept Clemson in the game. Ohio State had to settle for a 21-yard field goal after freshman Garrett Wilson made a leaping grab at the 5 on its opening possession.
Dobbins then broke a 68-yard touchdown run to make it 10-0. The junior then had a 64-yarder to the Clemson 8. But on third-and-goal, he dived for a pass from Fields. Initially ruled a touchdown, it was correctly ruled that he lost possession as he landed and Ohio State kicked another field goal.
On the Buckeyes’ next possession, they again moved inside the Clemson 20. Fields lobbed a screen pass to Dobbins, who had blockers ahead of him. But he took his eyes off the ball and dropped it. Another field goal made it 16-0.
The way the Buckeyes defense was dominating — OSU outgained Clemson 288-86 at that point — the missed opportunities didn’t seem critical.
The momentum changed when Wade was called for the targeting call.
“It’s tough to go into a locker room with such a great team who played their hearts out and not be able to celebrate a victory,” Day said. “But our guys played hard. Certainly feeling a range of emotions right now: proud, sad, and certainly angry.”