Familiarity won’t ease the pain for long-suffering fans after Ohio State loss

Ray Stein
Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave walks off the field as Clemson-colored confetti falls from the ceiling at State Farm Stadium following Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Ohio State football observers who have attained a particular position of, ahem, experience will have no problem identifying the feeling they awoke to Sunday morning. It likely will linger a few days or more.

Simply put, the 2019 Buckeyes had a legitimate shot at hoisting another national-championship trophy but saw the opportunity slip through their fingers — or, depending on your level of fandom — snatched from their grasp.

A 29-23 loss to Clemson in a Fiesta Bowl national semifinal on Saturday left a magnificently talented, disciplined and poised Ohio State team on the wrong side of college football immortality, a result sealed with 37 seconds remaining when quarterback Justin Fields was intercepted for only the third time all season but the second time in the game.

The resulting sensation is hardly novel, as the men and women who live and breathe scarlet and gray — especially those with some gray around the temples — surely know.

Among the programs that have delivered such championship-snatching blows in the past 50 years include Michigan, of course, as well as Stanford, UCLA, Southern California, Florida, LSU and now Clemson, for the second time in four seasons.

This most recent loss to the Tigers, however, was a far cry from the 31-0 egg-laying on the same field in 2016, when Ohio State clearly was out of its element.

No way was that the case on Saturday. The Buckeyes rang up the game’s first four scores, but the fact that three of them were close-range field goals meant they left points on the turf — and kept the door ajar for subsequent disappointment.

Ifs and buts and all that, but if OSU charges out 28-0 or even 24-0 instead of 16-0, the Tigers must alter their game plan on both sides of the ball and the contest likely turns into something akin to the you-can’t-catch-me chase that marked Oklahoma’s futile effort against overpowering LSU in the earlier semifinal.

Defending national champion Clemson is no Okie pretender, though, and the Tigers doubly caught a huge break when OSU cornerback Shaun Wade was called for targeting on a third-down sack of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, prompting Wade’s ejection and allowing Clemson’s drive to continue.

The momentum swung hard at that moment. Clemson was in the end zone within two minutes and returned another 95 seconds later on Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw, narrowing Ohio State’s lead to 16-14 at halftime.

There were more unfortunate breaks as the Buckeyes fell behind in the second half, some self-inflicted (a spate of penalties, including a roughing-the-punter call on fourth down), some health-related (J.K. Dobbins’ ankle injury robbed him of explosiveness), and a bizarre officiating decision that took a defensive touchdown by OSU off the board because replay officials determined that Clemson’s Justyn Ross catching a pass and taking three or four full steps before fumbling does not constitute a “football move.”

It’s been a long time since the Buckeyes were bitten by a call so controversial and seemingly improper. But even that decision, which had commentators and others on social media buzzing and fuming through much of Sunday, didn’t sink them.

Ohio State eventually regained the lead and then nearly salted it away with a clock-eating drive. But then the defense allowed Clemson to travel 94 yards in four plays for the go-ahead touchdown, and the offense couldn’t answer as Fields’ pass to Chris Olave was picked off by Nolan Turner when Olave broke off his route.

So that left the Buckeyes and their fans with a stinger of a loss, a sharp punch to the nose that will hurt for a few days, minimum. They know the feeling well.