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Analysis: Victory over Clemson was as necessary as it was dominant for Buckeyes

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave catches a 56-yard touchdown pass behind Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick during the third quarter.

NEW ORLEANS — For so long, this Ohio State football season was a series of questions.

Would the Buckeyes even get to play?

Would they ever find their stride in a season repeatedly interrupted by COVID-19?

Would they finally slay nemesis Clemson when they got their chance in Friday's College Football Playoff semifinal?

They answered with an exclamation point in a 49-28 victory as necessary as it was convincing. This was a win the Buckeyes had to have.

If they'd lost in the playoff for the third time in five seasons to Clemson, the Buckeyes' desire to be regarded as a truly elite program would have rung hollow. Ohio State hadn't won a playoff game since taking the first CFP title six years ago. Since then, Clemson and Alabama had established themselves as the kings of college football, and the gap between them and everyone else would have become wider.

Factor in the Buckeyes' lingering heartache over last season's semifinal loss to the Tigers, and, well, another one would have been devastating.

“Because it was Clemson ... I think that had a lot of added flavor,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “A lot of guys left that field feeling like they let one get away.

“In life, you don't typically get an opportunity to get a second chance, but you can't miss the second time. So I don't know what we're more excited about — the fact that we have a chance to play for a national championship or the fact that we avenged that loss.”

Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert, center, celebrates his touchdown catch against Clemson with tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere (78) and wide receiver Jameson Williams during the second quarter on Friday.

This was sweet for so many Buckeyes. Quarterback Justin Fields and receiver Chris Olave had a miscommunication at the end of last year's semifinal that resulted in a game-sealing interception. On Friday, Fields was brilliant, throwing six touchdowns despite taking a brutal hit to the ribs in the second quarter that left him in considerable pain. Olave caught six passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

Now the mighty Crimson Tide await in the championship game Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Ohio State beat Alabama 42-35 on its way to the 2014 title, but this Crimson Tide team is a better version than that one.

But just as the '14 Buckeyes peaked late, so is this one. Fields rebounded from an off game against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship to erase any doubts about his ability or toughness. Trey Sermon showed that his school-record 331 yards in Indianapolis was no fluke. He ran for 193 yards on Friday. It was the first time all season that the run game and pass game clicked fully in the same game.

But really, Ohio State's dominance started with both of its lines.

“Right after the first series, we knew that we could control the line of scrimmage,” right guard Wyatt Davis said.

That first series was a three-and-out, but Davis was right. The offensive line, missing left guard Harry Miller because of COVID, opened holes for Sermon and protected Fields well in the pocket. He was sacked only twice.

Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning celebrates a fourth-down stop as he leaps over Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence during the fourth quarter Friday night in New Orleans.

On defense, the Buckeyes made Clemson one-dimensional by shutting down the run. Star running back Travis Etienne was held to 32 yards in 10 carries. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who had a 67-yard, momentum-changing touchdown run in last year's game, lost 8 yards in 10 carries, including two sacks.

Ohio State's pass defense, which has taken criticism this year as it worked in almost entirely new cast of starters, mostly bent but didn't break. Clemson didn't have a completion longer than 29 yards in a game when it needed explosive plays to rally. Ohio State's pass rush heated up as the game went on.

“Ohio State, they played a heck of a game,” said Lawrence, considered a lock to be the first pick in this year's NFL draft. “You've got to give it to them, obviously. They kicked our butt tonight.”

Yes, the Buckeyes did. It was as if all the pent-up emotion and energy from last year's loss and this season's adversity ignited one magical performance. Ohio State is a veteran team, laden with multi-year senior starters and juniors such as Fields and Olave who almost certainly will enter the NFL draft.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day heads to midfield to shake hands with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after the game.

This game was destined to be, for better or worse, those veterans' legacy. Now they know they've carried the Buckeyes further than they've been in six years, no matter what happens against Alabama.

“I think it's huge,” Day said. “We still have another game to play. This thing's not done yet.

“But I do think this was big for us. This was a statement for us as a program to win a CFP game, especially after what happened last year. And to play the way we did, it means a lot for our program.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch