GLENDALE, Ariz. — The anger came in waves as one bad break after another went against them, the rage finally boiling over in a locker room filled with frustration and flying helmets.
“There are a range of emotions right now,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said to begin his postgame news conference. “Proud. Sad. And certainly angry.”
Angry. If there was one word to describe No. 2 Ohio State’s season-ending 29-23 loss to No. 3 Clemson on Saturday night, it was that.
Years from now the Buckeyes will look back and burn, both because they had the game in their grasp and gave it away but also because they think the game was ripped from their grasp by officiating calls that went against them.
Even Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was fuming, hot-texting Yahoo sports reporter Pete Thamel about an overturned call that took away a Buckeyes touchdown.
“Terry McAuley is 100-percent correct!!! Unreal!!” Thamel tweeted, quoting Smith’s reference to McAuley, a former official who thought Ohio State’s TD should have counted. “Feel free to share how pissed I am.”
Just got a text from Ohio State AD Gene Smith: "Terry McAulay is 100-percent correct!!! Unreal!!" He added: "Feel free to share how pissed I am." https://t.co/mVcsabPYFf— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 29, 2019
Maybe Jordan Fuller’s touchdown return off a Clemson catch-and-fumble should have counted. But it didn’t, overturned on replay review.
“We had a lot of good looks at it,” referee Ken Williamson said. “We put on fast motion and slow motion. The player did not complete the process of the catch, so therefore the pass was incomplete.”
Maybe Shaun Wade should not have been called for targeting on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. But he was, resulting in the OSU cornerback’s ejection.
“This was a crown-of-the-helmet targeting foul,” Williamson explained. “Initial contact was with the crown of the helmet … so at that point targeting was properly called.”
Day wasn’t ready to go off on the officiating just yet.
“There are a lot of plays that didn’t go our way. It’s very hard to swallow right now,” Day said. “I’ll have to really take a look at the film to figure out what really happened on some of those plays, because in a game like this where the margin for error is so tiny, one play can alter the game.”
This is where two things need to be pointed out: First, the main controversial calls were not so egregious as to rate as top-10 botch jobs in officiating history. An objective eye might even see them as correct calls. Watch Justyn Ross’ catch-not-a-catch fumble replay 10 times in real time and also in slow motion and you would not be blamed for going back and forth on whether Fuller’s 29-yard fumble return for a touchdown should have counted, which would have given OSU a 23-21 lead late in the third quarter.
My issue was not whether the refs got it right on the field — they ruled it a fumble — but that the replay booth overturned the call, ruling it an incompletion. I didn’t see enough clear evidence to change the call, but that brings me to the second point: Don’t put yourself in position to get beat by odd bounces and iffy calls.
Do bad breaks hurt? Of course, but just as guilty was the Buckeyes failing to score touchdowns on three trips into the red zone.
“It was tough. If we score touchdowns there, it’s huge,” Day said.
So huge that the Buckeyes probably win if they change those three field goals into touchdowns. Or if Justin Fields doesn’t throw two interceptions, the second of which sealed the win for Clemson when wide receiver Chris Olave cut back as Fields threw to the spot where Olave should have been.
“My mistake,” Olave said.
It was far from the Buckeyes’ only miscue on a night that included a roughing the punter call and several missed tackles on Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown run.
“It’s a range of emotions, because even though (bad breaks) were happening we kept overcoming it,” Day said. “It was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just keep playing.’ But when we look back on it it’s going to be overwhelming how those game-altering plays … you need those to go your way when playing a team like Clemson. Give them credit. They are defending national champs.”
Day could not clearly reflect on a season that ended too early.
“Too close to it,” he said. “Just a lot of tears. A lot of disappointment. A lot of people angry in that locker room right now. I’ll be honest, a lot of throwing helmets. Just can’t believe it’s over. What do you say to a bunch of guys like that other than you love them?”
The Ohio State locker room had cooled considerably by the time the last few players were removing tape from their ankles. One of them, tailback J.K. Dobbins, was hurting both emotionally and physically after injuring his ankle late in the first half. A sprain that felt like another bad break.
Standing next to Dobbins, wide receiver K.J. Hill shrugged off the bad calls.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “Just move on.”
He will. Ohio State will. But it is going to take awhile for the anger to cool.