Buckeyes will play for national title after rolling over Clemson
NEW ORLEANS – Ohio State ended its Clemson curse Friday night.
A Buckeyes team that had merely dabbled in domination in six games against Big Ten competition dismantled its now-previous nemesis with a 49-28 College Football Playoff semifinal victory at the Sugar Bowl.
Justin Fields, coming off his worst game as a Buckeye in the Big Ten championship game, was nearly perfect. The junior completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdowns.
The No. 3 Buckeyes (7-0) will play No. 1 Alabama for the national title Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla. The No. 1 Crimson Tide breezed past Notre Dame 31-14 in the other semifinal.
The Buckeyes will be underdogs against the Crimson Tide. They also were to No. 2 Clemson (10-2), by a touchdown, but they played like a team on the mission they were.
Ohio State had never beaten the Tigers in four previous games, with last year's 29-23 semifinal loss the most painful. The sting from that defeat drove the Buckeyes all year and was a big reason they fought so hard to persuade the Big Ten to reinstate a season.
Not everyone believed the Buckeyes were deserving of making the playoff after playing only six games and struggling against Indiana and Northwestern. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was outspoken about the Buckeyes' unworthiness, though he said it was based on their shortened schedule and not their talent.
"I think what today did was show the character of our team," coach Ryan Day said immediately after the game. "We've been through so much. We knew we had to play our best tonight and I think we did.”
After a shaky start – Clemson scored quickly on its opening drive and the Buckeyes went three-and-out – Ohio State dominated. The Buckeyes outscored Clemson 35-7 the rest of first half.
Fields, who threw five interceptions in the Indiana and Northwestern games, was dazzling. He threw four first-half touchdowns, including three to tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert.
The game even had some fitting bookends to last year's game. Chris Olave, whose ill-fated aborted route resulted in a defeat-clinching interception, caught two touchdown passes and had six catches for 132 yards.
A year ago, the game turned when Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade was ejected for targeting on a second-quarter hit on Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Clemson would then score on that possession and rally from a 16-0 deficit.
Friday, linebacker James Skalski, Clemson's defensive leader, was ejected for targeting on Fields. That penalty helped the Buckeyes score their fourth touchdown.
Fields was clearly in pain after that, but the Buckeyes kept rolling.
"I took a big shot in the second quarter, but what really kept me going was my brothers," he said. "I'd do anything for these guys. I love them."
It helped that Trey Sermon continued his late-season roll. After running for a school-record 331 yards in the Big Ten championship game, Sermon found daylight and broke tackles for 193 yards in 31 carries behind a line missing left guard Harry Miller for COVID reasons.
The defense did its part in the first half after the tentative beginning. It allowed only one other score and allowed only one first down in Clemson's final three possessions of the half.
In the second half, the game's outcome was in doubt only briefly. Ohio State had a chance to extend the lead on its first possession of the half when it moved inside the Clemson 15 on a 36-yard completion to Olave. But on third-and-8, Fields tried to force a pass to Olave in the corner of the end zone and linebacker Mike Jones Jr. intercepted it.
Clemson then went 80 yards to make it 35-21.
But the Buckeyes answered. They went 91 yards after averting disaster on the kickoff. Sermon got a first down on a swing pass to start the drive and Fields then threw a beautiful deep ball to Olave for a 56-yard score.
The Buckeyes then extended the lead on another Fields bomb, this time a 45-yarder to Jameson Williams to make it 49-21.
Clemson scored to cut the lead to three touchdowns. But any chance for a comeback ended midway through the fourth quarter when the Buckeyes' pass rush got to Lawrence. Tyreke Smith sacked Lawrence for a 13-yard loss and then Smith's pressure forced a fourth-down incompletion from the OSU 33 with 7:43 left.
Ohio State outgained Clemson 639-444.