The tide of Saturday’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl turned on a targeting penalty in the contest’s second quarter.
That turning point involved a sack by Ohio State’s Shaun Wade, who was subsequently ejected after replay review showed he led with his helmet during the play in question.
The seemingly innocuous play lit a fire under the third-seeded Clemson Tigers, who up to that point trailed the Buckeyes, 16-0, looking listless and lost on the field.
The Tigers, who entered Saturday’s contest with a nation-high 26 game winning streak, scored 21 unanswered points over the next two quarters, storming back to take the lead in front of a largely partisan crowd of 71,330 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.
The Tigers never relented, pulling off a 29-23 victory over the Buckeyes to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff championship game, held in New Orleans on January 13.
Much of the team’s offensive success against the Buckeyes can be attributed to the talents of sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence and junior back Travis Etienne.
Lawrence finished the night with 259 passing yards and two passing touchdowns to go with 107 rushing yards and a score, while Etienne had 105 offensive yards and three touchdowns, with two coming on the ground and one receiving.
The Tigers defense didn’t relent, either, forcing Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to throw two interceptions, after Fields threw one in 13 regular season contests.
Swinney and the Tigers will seek their second-consecutive title in the Crescent City against the Tigers of Louisiana State University, who beat Oklahoma in the Citrus Bowl on Saturday, 63-28.
Swinney called his team’s performance against an unbeaten Buckeyes squad a sight to behold, wrapping up a decade of football that few around the South Carolina-based program will forget.
“What a night. What a journey for our team. What a way to end a great decade tonight,” Swinney said. “Unbelievable decade that we just finished up.
“And just really proud of our guys. Proud of these seniors. Got their 55th win tonight. That ties a college football record. The resiliency, the will to win, the heart, the character, just special. Just really proud.”
The Buckeyes’ (13-1, 10-0) season came to an end on Saturday, after Fields’ deep heave fell into the arms of Clemson defensive back Nolan Turner for a game-deciding interception.
The loss snapped Ohio State’s 16-game winning streak, which was the second-longest in the nation, behind Clemson, entering Saturday’s game.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day addressed his team’s tough-luck loss on Saturday night, praising his players for the way they fought to the final whistle against a talented Clemson team.
“[It’s] tough to go into a locker room with such a great team who played their hearts out and not be able to celebrate a victory,” Day said. “But our guys played hard. Certainly feeling a range of emotions right now: Proud, sad, and certainly angry.
But, again, I thought our guys left it all on the field. We played hard and played bold. But certainly there were a lot of plays in that game that didn’t go our way.”
The Buckeyes road to defeat was long and winding, jumping out a 16-0 lead in the contest’s opening half, before faltering down the stretch.
Day said he and his players will have a wide range of emotions surrounding their performance in Glendale, but that everyone should hold their heads high, because of how they fought when faced with adversity.
“I think that it’s a range of emotions, because even though those things were happening, we were overcoming it,” Day said. “We just kept fighting and kept playing. It was like, Don’t worry about those; just keep playing. I think when we look back on it, it is going to be overwhelming.
Those game-altering plays that happen in a game, you need those things to go beat a team like Clemson where you’re playing in a Semifinal game. You need those one or two plays. Then to miss a couple of them, that hurts you.”
Another key component of their loss was the ankle injury suffered by junior back J.K. Dobbins, who had 142 rushing yards on 6 attempts in the game’s first quarter.
Dobbins finished the night with 174 rushing yards on 18 attempts, with much of his lateral movement inhibited as he struggled to make sharp cuts and shifts after the injury.
The Buckeyes managed to outgain the Tigers, 516-to-417, on Saturday night, finishing with 320 passing and 196 rushing yards overall.
Day’s takeaway from his team’s six-point defeat a mixture of pride and penitence, longing to change a few decisions that backfired, while making sure to point out the aspects that his players did well on and off the field.
“I’m so proud of the way our team responded like that. It didn’t get us down. We kept fighting,” Day said. “We kept swinging all the way to the end. I couldn’t be prouder of the way we responded because that was hard to swallow.”
Hear them roar
Swinney reflected on the Tigers’ impressive decade during his postgame remarks, saying he knew his team was bound for glory, even after a disastrous 6-7 campaign to kick off the decade in 2010.
It’s that unshakable faith that’s guided the Tigers to unmatched heights over the past 120 months, winning two national titles, while playing in the College Football Playoff for five straight years.
“I said in 2010, after a six-win season, we’re fixing to have the winningest decade in Clemson history,” Swinney said. “I dream big. Actually, we’re a little short. I dreamed a little bit bigger. We missed a couple, but we’ve had a great run. It’s been an unbelievable decade. What we’ve done on the field and off the field, it gets lost a lot of times what we’ve done academically.
“So these are a bunch of graduates and great young men who have come through our program. We’ve stayed committed to the purpose of our program. And it’s been a great decade. But as I told them, we’ve got a windshield mentality in our program.
That’s why we’re consistent. It is always about what’s next. Our dreams are always greater than our memories and that’s just the way it is. So we’re just getting started. The best is yet to come.”