Hard year of waiting ends as Buckeyes finally get another crack at Clemson
For Ohio State, it's true, even if it borders on sacrilege.
The Buckeyes didn’t get to play Michigan this year, and for Ohio State, the Wolverines are an annual obsession.
But truth be told, it wasn’t maize and blue that motivated Ohio State through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was purple and orange.
No team has become more of a nemesis for the Buckeyes than Clemson. Against no other opponent is Ohio State winless in more than three games. And all of the losses to Clemson have been painful, program-defining defeats.
Woody Hayes’ career ended with that infamous punch of Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Three times in the past seven years, the Tigers ended Ohio State’s season with a bowl loss. Last year’s 29-23 defeat to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal was particularly hard to swallow because the Buckeyes believe they were the better team.
Now Ohio State (6-0) has what it craved for an entire year — a rematch, this time in the Sugar Bowl.
“We're super-excited to be back,” senior tight end Luke Farrell said. “We're right where we want to be. We've been talking about it all year, getting back to this game.
“It's something that's been in the back of our minds all year, since the end of last season, the end of that game last year. We even have the score posted up here in the building.”
For Ohio State, Clemson (10-1) is practically a one-game season. The Buckeyes rolled through its Big Ten regular season, making that seem like a formality. Only Indiana gave them a serious challenge, and Ohio State led 35-7 before holding on for a 42-35 victory.
In the Big Ten championship, Northwestern led 10-3 until running back Trey Sermon got unleashed to carry the Buckeyes to a 22-10 victory.
In doing so, Ohio State at times looked like a juggernaut and at others like a team that looked almost bored.
As much as they tried to fight complacency, the Buckeyes knew, center Josh Myers acknowledged, they could get away with it because they were clearly more talented than their opponents.
Another reason was the way the pandemic altered their season. Ohio State hasn’t played in consecutive weeks since the first two games of the season. The Buckeyes simply haven’t had a chance to get in a flow.
“Yeah, I think that's a big part of it,” Myers said of the inconsistency. “There hasn't been any rhythm to anything we've done this season. We've been taking hits one right after another, whether it be games getting canceled or players having to sit out, and it's just been a really weird year.
“In a season you get so used to the weekly routine, always being the same over and over and it just carries over into everything. Last season, my weeks never changed. What I did during the week was exactly the same every week.”
Ohio State football:Record-breaking Sermon delivering for Ohio State football at just the right time
Against Clemson, however, those issues melt away. Both teams last played on Dec. 19. Ohio State knows it’s playing a team that has comparable talent. It will take a sustained 60-minute performance against an opponent with stars including quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne and a defense masterminded by coordinator Brent Venables.
Motivation wouldn’t have been an issue anyway because of last year’s loss, but comments by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney questioning the Buckeyes’ presence in the playoff because Ohio State has played only six games have not gone unnoticed.
“We definitely heard about it,” sophomore receiver Garrett Wilson said. “It's just fuel to our fire. We’ve had a good week in practice so far, and I think that he kind of fueled it a little bit. It's been a lot easier to go out there and put the work in and know that we're preparing for Clemson because this rivalry has built up over these last couple years.”