Looking back on sequences that cemented Ohio State's semifinal win over Clemson

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called for punts twice when the Tigers might have gotten some momentum with fourth-down conversions.

Ohio State left New Orleans with a 49-28 victory over Clemson on Friday night, vanquishing its postseason nemesis and reaching the College Football Playoff national championship game against Alabama.

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A heroic effort by quarterback Justin Fields, continued hot streak by running back Trey Sermon and resolute defense put the Buckeyes in position to play for the national title on Jan. 11.

But a handful of hidden plays, especially early in the third quarter, also had a big hand in Ohio State advancing past the semifinals.

1. Before the Buckeyes gained a 35-14 halftime lead that proved insurmountable for the Tigers, Clemson began a drive with little more five minutes left in the second quarter. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence ran for 11 yards to start it off and it reached its 43-yard line.

But rather than keep the series alive, coach Dabo Swinney called for a punt on fourth-and-3 and returned possession to an Ohio State offense that appeared unstoppable and had a touchdown on its four previous drives.

Regaining possession, the Buckeyes would score on their fifth straight drive and build an even bigger cushion. With a 21-point lead through two quarters, their win probability had grown to more than 97%, according to ESPN.

2. A dump-off pass caught by Sermon on Ohio State’s second drive of the second half was critical. While officials initially called it a touchdown before a replay review determined his elbow had been down at the Buckeyes’ 23-yard line, Sermon had already gained enough yards to keep the chains moving on third down.

Had he not picked up a first down, the Buckeyes were set to punt from their own end zone and hand possession to Clemson, which was within two scores at 35-21 and had taken some momentum on its previous drive when Lawrence led them 80 yards for a touchdown.

Instead, four plays after Sermon’s first-down grab, Fields floated a deep pass downfield to Chris Olave to complete a 56-yard touchdown, and Ohio State went ahead by three touchdowns. It was never as close again. The small section of cheering Clemson parents and fans was rarely heard from again inside the Superdome.  

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3. Late in the third quarter, a fumble by Lawrence ended a potentially promising drive for Clemson, which had reached Ohio State’s 40-yard line and looked to cut into a 21-point gap. Buckeyes defensive tackle Tommy Togiai stripped the ball out of Lawrence’s grasp on a keeper on first-and-10.

Several Ohio State defensive linemen and linebackers piled on the loose ball before it was scooped up by Justin Hilliard. It was the second straight game in which Hilliard made a key fumble recovery, doing so previously against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.

4. If Clemson was to mount a rally in the fourth quarter, it was hampered from the onset. Left guard Matt Bockhorst was called for a false start while the Tigers faced a fourth-and-1 on the opening play of the fourth quarter. It was fourth-and-6 following the penalty, too far to go for it. So the Tigers punted.

With the ball back, the Buckeyes added to their lead when Fields connected with Jameson Williams for a 45-yard touchdown, going ahead by a score of 49-21 that marked the biggest lead for the Buckeyes and effectively ended the game.

Down by four scores, the Tigers had only three more possessions. They scored on one of the drives, but it was long past an opportunity for a comeback. The Buckeyes’ lead was safe, and there would be no late comeback attempt by Clemson in this season’s semifinal game.