After enduring challenges all year, now comes the hardest part for Ohio State football

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State celebrates its win over Northwestern in the Big Ten football championship game on Saturday, including quarterback Jack Miller III (9), coach Ryan Day and running back Trey Sermon (8).

When Ohio State lost the heart-breaker to Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinals, the Buckeyes made it their mission to return to the CFP this year and win it.

Now they’ll get their chance. No. 3 Ohio State will play No. 2 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in New Orleans, the CFP selection committee announced on Sunday.

Ohio State could get a boost with the expected return of wide receiver Chris Olave. An OSU source told The Dispatch that Olave is on track to be able to play against Clemson after the Big Ten reduced the time that players who've tested positive cannot play from 21 days to 17 days.

Olave's miscommunication with quarterback Justin Fields resulted in a game-clinching interception in last year's semifinal loss to Clemson. Getting back to  this point has required talent, sacrifice and resilience because of all the COVID-19 challenges.

On Saturday, the Buckeyes needed to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten championship to cement their playoff spot, and that remained in doubt until well into the fourth quarter.

The Buckeyes trailed 10-6 at halftime before running back Trey Sermon exploded for 271 rushing yards in the second half to finish with a school-record 331 yards and lead Ohio State to a 22-10 victory and its fourth straight Big Ten title.

As challenging as these COVID months have been, now comes the hard part for the Buckeyes. Northwestern is a solid team, but nobody confuses the Wildcats with Clemson.

For the first time since last year’s semifinal against the Tigers, the Buckeyes will be underdogs instead of prohibitive favorites. Clemson routed Notre Dame 34-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship Saturday, avenging an earlier double-overtime loss in which the Tigers played without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

“We’re going to have to play our best game of the season, which I'm not sure if we've quite played yet,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “There's just been so many things and different disruptions that have happened for us this year. But we're really hoping to get everybody healthy and can get everybody in one piece here as you go into this game.”

That is a major question. While Olave could return, others might not be able to. Linebacker Baron Browning and punter Drue Chrisman were among the other players who missed Saturday’s game for COVID reasons.

Day said he hopes to have “a good amount of them (back). But there's also some that are really close based on what that number is that we're talking about.”

Without Olave, the Buckeyes’ normally potent passing game fizzled against Northwestern. Credit some of that to the Wildcats’ superb secondary, but Justin Fields was hesitant in the pocket all game. He then sustained what he believes is a sprain to his throwing thumb.

Last year against Clemson, Fields was limited because of an injured knee. Now there will be questions about his thumb. In a Sugar Bowl Zoom call, Day said that Fields' thumb should be fine for the game.

The passing game carried the Buckeyes for most of the year, but even if Fields is healthy and Olave returns, it must get back into rhythm. d the passing game, though Olave's expected return will help. Other than Garrett Wilson, who has 34 catches, no other Buckeye is in double figures in receptions.

The flip side of that is that the run game is obviously clicking. Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and center Josh Myers returned after missing the Michigan State game for COVID reasons, and the offensive line dominated. Sermon ran through huge holes and then showed vision and shiftiness in finding additional daylight while running through tackles.

In last year’s Clemson game, the Buckeyes took a 16-0 lead behind J.K. Dobbins, who ran for 141 yards in the first quarter. Dobbins then sustained a high ankle sprain and ran for only 33 yards as Ohio State’s lead dissolved. Having offensive balance will be essential against Clemson.

Defensively, the Buckeyes look to be peaking at the right time. Northwestern moved the ball early as Ohio State got caught overpursuing. Once the Buckeyes made adjustments, the Wildcats found it difficult to get traction. Ohio State blanked Northwestern in the second half.

With Lawrence and star running back Travis Etienne, Clemson will pose threats unlike anything Ohio State has seen this season. The Tigers’ defense is also on a roll. Clemson has held its last three opponents to 17 or fewer points.

“We've got to do a great job of preparation,” Day said. “Every day, our focus has to be on Clemson and executing at the highest possible level we can. We know because we were there last year how much it hurts if you don't execute, and the margin for error is tiny when you play a team like Clemson.”

The Buckeyes have waited 12 months to get back to this point. It has been a year no one could have anticipated, and Day said they will all be better for having navigated it.

“This team has learned more life lessons this season than any team I've ever been around in my entire coaching career,” Day said, “and that's really why we got into coaching.

“This is an opportunity to be one of the best stories in the history of college football, if we're able to just keep moving forward and have some success.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch 

Ohio State vs. Clemson

When: 8:45 p.m. Jan. 1

TV: ESPN

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)

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