SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Legacy balances on a razor’s edge. One Holy Buckeye and history heralds your greatness. One Shawn Springs slip and a paper cut bleeds you to death.
Ohio State had a chance to live forever favorably in Buckeyes lore. Through 13 games, this team was as good as any that has played in the Horseshoe. The scoring differential of 36.2 was highest in school history, built on the backs of a sensational offense (48.7 points a game) and shutdown defense (12.5).
But you have to seal the deal. And Ohio State didn’t. Leading 16-0 in the first quarter of Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl and ahead 23-21 with 3:07 to play in the game, the Buckeyes let the defending champs off the ropes instead of delivering a knockout punch. Clemson pulled to within 16-14 at halftime to make it a game, then went 94 yards in four plays over 1:18 of those final three minutes to win 29-23 and advance to the College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 13 against Joe Burrow and Louisiana State in New Orleans.
Instead of heading to Bourbon Street, Buckeye Nation will need bourbon straight to get past this one. And instead of being mentioned in the same hallowed breath as the beloveds from 1968, 2002 and 2014, to name a few, the 2019 Buckeyes have been utility-knifed from the photograph of best teams ever.
All it took was a dropped pass here, a defensive breakdown there and a few bad breaks — or botched calls, if that’s how you want to see it. Personally, I don’t think the game was lost on a targeting call and overturned fumble return for a touchdown, although both rulings factored into the outcome. So did J.K. Dobbins’ ankle injury. But mostly a game that should have been won was lost by settling for field goals instead of touchdowns three times in the red zone during the first half. It was lost by facing a surprisingly fast quarterback with an NFL future. And it was lost by defensive failures that allowed that quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, to run for a 67-yard touchdown on the way to 107 yards rushing overall — and to orchestrate the late-game heroics on the winning drive.
About that final Clemson drive: The Tigers showed they have the “it” factor necessary to pull out close games against excellent teams. Compare that to Ohio State’s final drive, which ended with an interception in the end zone after wide receiver Chris Olave mistakenly cut back his post route because he thought Justin Fields was scrambling to find a receiver.
One of the few unanswered questions for the Buckeyes entering the game was whether they could handle the stress of needing to a). convert a late score to win; and b). stop their opponent from scoring late. Playing dynamically in those crucial moments separate great teams from really good ones. Until late Saturday night, I thought Ohio State was the former. Instead, they proved to be the latter.
“It wasn’t good enough in the end, but we were right there,” coach Ryan Day said. “It’s not like our guys didn’t play hard or didn’t execute or didn’t make big plays. We had all those things. We just came up short in the end.”
Coming up short does not mean the Buckeyes need apologize. In August, most fans gladly would have accepted 13-1 with a trip to the playoff and win over Michigan, given that OSU trotted out a first-year coach and first-year starting quarterback.
Perspective typically is not appreciated this close to lingering pain, but when the anger and frustration subside, this season should be viewed as a success. The ache for many is that it could have been so much more.