Ohio State football players left to lament wasted opportunity

Bill Rabinowitz
Binjimen Victor (9) comforts fellow Ohio State senior wide receiver Austin Mack following the Buckeyes’ 29-23 loss to Clemson on Saturday night in a College Football Playoff semifinal in Glendale, Arizona. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

PHOENIX — J.K. Dobbins’ assessment of Ohio State’s season was short and harsh.

“I mean, it didn't go as planned,” the junior running back said. “It's a failure.”

Dobbins said this in the dejected postgame locker room on Saturday night after a heartbreaking 29-23 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

His bluntness was understandable. The Buckeyes believed they were a national championship team, and for much of their game against the defending champions, they looked the part.

Dobbins ran for 141 yards in the first quarter and became the first Ohio State running back ever to run for 2,000 yards in a season. But even for him, the game and the season were a case of what might have been.

Dobbins suffered a foot injury late in the second quarter and played gamely if not as effectively the rest of the way.

“It hurts,” he said of the pain in his foot. The pain in his heart was deeper. Clemson displayed heart and talent by rallying from a 16-0 hole. But the Buckeyes believed they were the superior team.

This was a loss that will haunt for a long time, in part because the Buckeyes did have the talent and coaching to win it all and in part because of their mistakes and the controversial calls that didn’t go their way.

Dobbins dropped a screen pass that probably would have resulted in a touchdown, and he wasn’t able to secure another pass as he attempted a diving catch. Instead of touchdowns, the Buckeyes settled for field goals on those drives, as they did on their first possession after driving to the Clemson 5-yard line.

The defense, which played so well for the first 25 minutes, cracked when it was needed most. The Buckeyes will bemoan for years Shaun Wade’s targeting ejection and the Jordan Fuller’s scoop-and-score that was changed to an incompletion after replay review.

Those were monumental plays, but those weren’t the only ones that decided the game. The Buckeyes allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive that was kept alive by a foolish roughing-the-punter penalty. On Clemson’s last drive, the Buckeyes allowed the Tigers to go 94 yards in only four plays.

Then came the final miscommunication between quarterback Justin Fields and receiver Chris Olave when Olave broke off his route thinking that Fields would scramble. That interception in the final minute left the Buckeyes stunned that victory had eluded them.

After the game, Ryan Day, who lost for the first time as Ohio State coach, described the mixture of emotions in the locker room.

“Just a lot of tears,” he said. “A lot of disappointment. A lot of people angry in that locker room right now. There's a lot of throwing helmets. A lot of just ‘Can't believe it's over.’ So what do you say to a bunch of guys like that, other than you love them?

“And the older guys, the seniors have left a legacy, and the younger guys have to learn from it. Wake up in the morning, the sun will come up and we'll regroup.”

For many of the Buckeyes, this was their final game. In addition to seniors such as K.J. Hill and Fuller, Ohio State is almost certain to lose Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and Dobbins to the NFL. Wade could join them, forcing the Buckeyes to rebuild their secondary, not to mention replace co-coordinator Jeff Hafley as he heads to Boston College.

Dobbins’ harsh assessment about the season being a failure should soften with time. The Buckeyes won their third consecutive Big Ten title. They dominated their first 10 opponents and showed their mettle in their next three when faced with adversity.

But this was a special collection of talent, and they believed they would hoist the championship trophy. That they won’t is a feeling that won’t leave them soon.