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Ohio State's Chris Olave still not over the way last season ended, ready for big 2020

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Chris Olave caught this touchdown pass last year against Clemson, but the Ohio State wide receiver hasn't been able to forget his final play of that heartbreaking loss when he broke off his route in a game-clinching interception. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

The play and the season turned on a split-second decision by Chris Olave. That painful moment has lingered in the Ohio State wide receiver’s mind ever since.

Olave’s superb sophomore season ended with a misread at the end of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. With 43 seconds left and Ohio State trailing 29-23 with the ball at the Clemson 23-yard line, quarterback Justin Fields threw a pass to the end zone intended for Olave.

But instead of Olave continuing his route toward the middle of the end zone, he thought Fields had begun to scramble and tried to cut back, slipping in the process. Clemson safety Nolan Turner made the easy interception to seal the game.

Olave blossomed into a star in 2019 after a breakthrough late in his freshman season. Combining smooth route-running, excellent body control and soft hands, Olave led a potent Buckeyes passing game with 849 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns and a 17.3-yards-per-carry average.

But that last play left a sour taste.

“It was tough,” Olave said Tuesday. “I care so much about this team, this university. The first couple of months were tough. I was going through it like four or five months, especially during quarantine.”

That’s when Olave was back home in California after Ohio State canceled spring practice early and found himself with more free time than he wanted. He got support from his family and tried to occupy his time with video games. But just to take his mind off the memory of that final play, Olave said he worked out two or three times a day.

Still, he couldn’t stop replaying the Fiesta Bowl play in his mind.

“Just a bunch of what-ifs,” he said. “What if I didn't do that? Or what if we didn't call that play? It's in the past; I've learned from it.”

When OSU players finally got permission to return to campus, Olave came back with renewed determination.

“I don't think I've gotten over it still, and I've still got that chip on my shoulder and I want to show the world,” Olave said.

Olave is already a coveted NFL prospect, and when the Big Ten initially canceled the fall season in August, there was much speculation that Olave would leave for the NFL. If that had happened, the Fiesta Bowl miscommunication would have been his last play as a Buckeye.

Not a chance, he said.

“I would have come back,” Olave said. “That is a guarantee. I feel like I couldn't leave with that as the last play.”

Receivers coach Brian Hartline said people inside the program never expected Olave to leave if the Big Ten’s original decision to cancel had stood.

“Chris was always on the side of being a Buckeye and graduating,” Hartline said. “The talk of leaving I don't think was anywhere inside this building. It was more outside the building.

“And I think his ability and desire to do something great here, be a part of something great and get his degree was emphasized more than ever after his last game down in Arizona. So I'm really excited for him.”

Olave is now the leader in the receivers room. K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor were seniors a year ago. Olave has a reserved personality, but he relishes the responsibility.

“I’m just trying to bring that energy every day and lead by example,” Olave said. “I’m not really a big talker, but when I go out there and work hard, and just try to put my foot down and keep going when things are going wrong, that’s how I lead.”

Until that last play in Arizona, not much had gone wrong in Olave’s Ohio State career. Now, he has a chance to put that memory behind him.

“His growth has been phenomenal,” Hartline said. “As a person, I love coaching him. We love having him in the room.

“And I'm really excited that he gets a chance to play this fall. He’s doing a great job. He’s maturing. The biggest focus is leadership in the room, and I think he's really embodied that and has done a great job.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch