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Rob Oller | Buckeyes perform Sugar Bowl magic against Clemson

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Don’t look now, Dabo, but your No. 11 will still be playing on Jan. 11.

Ohio State, famously snubbed in the poll rankings by Dabo Swinney, taught the Clemson coach a valuable lesson Friday night in the Sugar Bowl, a lesson as old as sports itself: Don’t rub the other guy’s nose in it before the deed is done, or risk being forced to smell your own stink.

And believe you me, the Buckeyes made sure the Tigers smelled it. From opening kick to the final 0:00, Ohio State turned in one of the more memorable bowl performances in school history by clocking Clemson 49-28 in the Superdome. Payback is a bit … of a blowout in the bayou.

On Jan. 11 in suburban Miami, the Buckeyes will play Alabama for No. 1, thanks in large part to the guy in the No. 1 jersey. Quarterback Justin Fields earned legend status not just by ending the Clemson curse, but doing so under challenging circumstances — returning from a rib injury that he said required him getting shot up with pain killers in the sideline medical tent — that rank with the greatest quarterback stories in school history.

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Right there with Cardale Jones stepping into the gap in 2014 and Troy Smith sticking it to Michigan and Craig Krenzel being OSU’s top rusher in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. 

Me? I rank what Fields did against Clemson No. 1, which is 10 spots lower than where Swinney ranked the Buckeyes with his poll vote. How much that obvious slight motivated the Buckeyes will never fully be known, but combined with last year’s heart-wrenching 29-23 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal, Ohio State had more than enough emotional ammunition to unleash on the Tigers.

A year after a miscommunication with quarterback Justin Fields led to an interception in a loss to Clemson, Ohio State receiver Chris Olave caught two touchdown passes from Fields in the Buckeyes' 49-28 victory over the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl.

“Because of the way it all played out, because it was Clemson … that added a lot of flavor to it,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said on a conference call as the whoops and hollers of his players echoed in the background. “In life you don’t typically get an opportunity to have a second chance, and you can’t miss the second time. I don’t know what we’re more excited about, the chance to play for a national championship or fact we avenged (last year’s) loss.”

Think about that for a second. Ohio State has a chance to win its first national championship since 2014, and yet Day can’t decide what feels better — getting a shot at No. 1 Alabama or shutting up Clemson, which came in 4-0 against the Buckeyes. 

Day insisted his feelings were nothing personal against Clemson — Swinney likewise chalked up his ranking snub of the Buckeyes to acting on his conscience, not a personal insult — but for the past 12 months the Ohio State coach never let his players forget what it felt like to lose to the Tigers after having led 16-0. 

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Essentially, the message going into this game was don’t let another game slip away. And the Buckeyes didn’t. If this was not the same jaw-dropping 59-0 performance against Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten championship game, it was close, if for no reason other than Clemson supposedly was right there with Alabama at the top of college football.

The Tigers may still be, but that only means the Buckeyes are right there with them. Don’t be surprised if Ohio State gives 'Bama all it can handle, too.

But that is getting ahead of things. Before looking forward, the past must be addressed, namely how the orange and purple demons that danced in the Arizona desert were exorcised one by one in a Sugar Bowl beatdown that was eerie in its equal-but-opposite effect on the game.

Consider: Last year, Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade was ejected after being penalized for targeting. This time it was Clemson linebacker James Skalski who was disqualified after leading with his helmet into Fields’ ribs.

Last year, officials reversed a critical fumble call that took away an apparent Ohio State touchdown. This time replay upheld a fumble by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence that sealed the Tigers’ fate.

Last year, Chris Olave turned the wrong way on a pass route, resulting in Fields throwing a killer interception to thwart a potential game-winning drive. This time Olave ran perfect routes that resulted in two touchdowns, including a 56-yarder that was just your everyday 60-yards-in-the-air toss by Fields, who passed for 385 yards and six TDs.

I don’t subscribe to karma — I’m more of the mind that good and bad breaks even out over the long haul — but it was just a little spooky watching the Buckeyes’ reversal of fortune play out within blocks of the voodoo parlors on Bourbon Street.

Then again, what Fields and the rest of the Buckeyes did against Clemson resembled magic. Can it continue? We’re about to find out.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD