A lot of us probably weren’t sure what to expect when the Buckeyes traveled south to New Orleans to take on the Clemson Tigers in a College Football Playoff semifinal rematch. Ohio State didn’t look great against Northwestern, even though some players were missing. Justin Fields had a sore thumb on his throwing hand. The defense had played well only in spurts and not always against the best competition. So, I expected to be extremely grumpy for four full quarters on New Year’s night.
It was fine, as it turned out. But there were a few things that stuck in my craw (whatever a craw is), so let’s get to it.
Ohio State should have been in good shape defensively on the first drive of the game. Then Trevor Lawrence threw deep for a big play on third down, but the play should have come back. Cornell Powell, living up to the brains associated with his Ivy League school that shares his first name, was smart enough to know he could probably get away with giving Shaun Wade a two-handed shove as the ball was arriving. He was right. The Big 12 Conference officials turned a blind eye to the obvious offensive pass interference and the Tigers cashed in with the game’s first touchdown a couple of plays later.
The Terrible Timeout
Clemson’s defense looked unprepared as Ohio State lined up for a third-and-two play on the Buckeyes’ first drive. A successful conversion seemed likely but Ryan Day called timeout. Perhaps someone was lined up wrong or something, but it helped Clemson more than Ohio State. After the timeout, Fields kept the ball and was stopped immediately, ending the drive. It could have been worse. Fields fumbled on the play but Jeremy Ruckert fell on the ball to save some field position. Drue Chrisman then came in and bombed a 67-yard punt when he only needed a 66-yarder. The touchback was just the icing on a really crappy cake of a first drive.
Already up a touchdown at 21-14, Ohio State was driving but seemed to come up a yard short on third down when Fields was rocked by James Skalski. The Clemson defender did what we used to call “spearing” back in the day, lowering his helmet and using it as a weapon in the exact manner the NCAA is trying to discourage. It was a dirty play but no penalty was called. However, the play was reviewed and Skalski was correctly ejected for targeting. That decision probably didn’t make Fields’ ribs feel any better. However, the Buckeyes finished the drive with Fields throwing a strike to Chris Olave to make it 28-14. Fields was visibly in pain the rest of the night and it completely took the quarterback run out of Ohio State’s playbook. As bad as the play was by Skalski, ESPN commentators Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit then talked about what a shame that Skalski’s season was going to end the same way two years in a row. Maybe don’t play dirty? And Twitter can be an awful place on the best of days but it was aggravating to see dozens of tweets from people who don’t seem to understand how dangerous Skalski’s play was.
The Flick Pick
The Buckeyes drove, drove on down the field to open the third quarter, looking to squash any comeback hopes Clemson had. Fields dropped back and for one of the few times all night a Clemson defender got in his face as he threw. The ball was deflected slightly and floated into the end zone, where it was intercepted by Mike Jones, Jr. It’s possible that he was simply trying to throw it into the corner, where either his guy would catch it or it would fall incomplete, but the deflection changed things and prevented a potential field goal being tacked on. Clemson came down the field and scored and put the Buckeyes on notice that there was more work to do.
You Had One Job!
After Clemson cut the lead to 35-21, the Tigers kicked off. As he had done all night, Demario McCall planned on accepting the touchback and then seemed to forget where he was on the field. The ball hit in front of the end zone and bounced, making it a live ball. The Buckeyes covered it but Ohio State’s possession started in difficult field position unnecessarily. Luckily, Ohio State’s offense was a juggernaut on the night and Fields threw a bomb to Olave for another touchdown to finish the drive.
Penalties and Declining Turnovers
Ohio State built the lead to four touchdowns in the fourth quarter and the defense took the field looking to close the game. Instead, the Tigers drove down the field after a number of issues helped Clemson pull back within 21 points. There was a facemask penalty and a pretty soft pass interference call on Wade, who made minimal contact with Powell, who had been allowed two-handed shoves all night. But the worst problems were the Buckeyes declining turnovers. Pressure forced a high Lawrence throw that should have been intercepted by Josh Proctor. Just after that, Jonathan Cooper had a strip sack and Ohio State failed to fall on it. Powell eventually scored a touchdown to cap the drive.
That’s all I’ve got for you this week, which sounds weird when this column tops out at just over 1,000 words. I could go on and on about how Sermon’s facemask near the end should have been offsetting. I could talk about how the refs wouldn’t just chill out and let Chrisman punt late. But I won’t. Like I said on this week’s Silver Bullets Podcast, if my Grumpy Old Buckeye column is relatively short, it’s probably a good sign and I never envisioned Ohio State getting such a complete and cathartic victory over Clemson. Also, my brand new laptop froze up and gave me the blue screen of death early in the third quarter, so I’ve probably forgotten some things I originally wrote about.
There were obviously lots of positives. Fields showed that the Northwestern game didn’t define him. Sermon continued his beast mode postseason. The offensive line did a great job despite missing starting guard Harry Miller. The tight ends caught touchdowns (!).The defense got stops, even if it wasn’t always pretty. (Hey, Clemson’s offense is no slouch.)
And now we’ll see how grumpy I am at the end of a National Championship Game against Alabama.