GLENDALE, Ariz. — Safety Jordan Fuller scooped up a possible fumble, then returned it into the end zone.
Earlier in the game, running back J.K. Dobbins looked as if he had corralled a touchdown pass while leaping forward.
Both times, replay reviews wiped points off the scoreboard for Ohio State, decisions that hung in the backdrop of a 29-23 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night, a crushing defeat that kept the Buckeyes from reaching the national championship game and a matchup with top-seeded LSU.
The sequence involving Fuller’s fumble recovery drew the most scrutiny. With 4:59 left in the third quarter and Ohio State trailing 21-16, Clemson faced third-and-19 at its 20-yard line.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence found receiver Justyn Ross on a quick toss. Ross was hit immediately by cornerback Jeff Okudah, and the ball spurted loose. As it rolled on the grass, Fuller sprang toward it, picked it up and ran 29 yards to the end zone.
The scoreboard at State Farm Stadium and on ESPN reflected a new score: Ohio State 22, Clemson 21. But officials overturned the touchdown return after it was determined the pass was incomplete even though Ross appeared to take several steps to break away from Okudah.
“The player did not complete the process of the catch,” referee Ken Williamson said. “So, therefore, the pass was incomplete.”
When Fuller met with a half-dozen reporters in front of his locker, he said he had watched a replay and didn’t agree.
“I’m not paid to be a ref,” Fuller said, “but it looked like he caught it to me. But I’m not paid to do that, I’m not even paid to play football.”
Still an incomplete on third pass, Clemson had to punt deep in its territory, but Ohio State’s offense was unable to manage a scoring drive on the following possession. The Buckeyes went three-and-out and did not regain the lead until the fourth quarter.
Fuller said he was not surprised that the fumble return was overturned. Momentum appeared to be sliding. A replay review in the first half resulted in a targeting penalty for cornerback Shaun Wade, an automatic ejection.
“It was just the way the game was going,” Fuller said.
Added Williamson, the head referee, “After the video, instant replay in the stadium as well as back at the video center, they both looked at it slow and fast, and they determined when he moved, the ball was becoming loose in his hands and he did not complete the process of the catch.”
Dobbins’ near-touchdown in the first half was more clear-cut upon review. The ball hit the turf. But each moment added to the heartbreak for Buckeyes fans in a season-ending loss.
Coach Ryan Day struggled to put the overturned calls into context.
"It is too close right now, and I'm probably too emotional to really talk about those,” he said. “I'll have to look at the film and see what that was. But I know there were some plays that were called on the field and then overturned, and when they overturn it, there has to be undisputable evidence,“ he said. ”If that's what they deemed it was, it's going to be something we'll have to take a look at. The thing about those plays were certainly that the catch that was returned for a touchdown was such a huge play in the game."