Third-ranked Ohio State — dented this season by the coronavirus pandemic and maligned for a shortened schedule and a shaky pass defense — ousted No. 2 Clemson from the College Football Playoff on Friday night, routing the Tigers, 49-28, in the Sugar Bowl and vaulting into the national championship game.
The Buckeyes (7-0) will meet No. 1 Alabama, the winner of Friday’s Rose Bowl against Notre Dame, on Jan. 11. The Tigers, who reached and lost last season’s title game, will be left to consider how, for the second time in a year, their ambitions collapsed under the lights of the Superdome in New Orleans.
Clemson’s night began with promise as quarterback Trevor Lawrence led an eight-play, 82-yard drive for a touchdown. Ohio State’s night started with a three-and-out.
The Buckeyes, though, scored touchdowns on each of their ensuing five possessions, a dazzling, dizzying display of passing and rushing might. By the time the clock mercifully expired, after Clemson’s drives stalled and their comeback efforts fizzled, the Big Ten champion Buckeyes had 639 yards of offense, including 254 on the ground.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, seemingly setting aside an injury from a hit that led the officials to disqualify a star Clemson defender, threw for 385 yards, including six touchdowns. He completed all but six of his 28 passes.
But Clemson, its offensive coordinator absent because he had tested positive for the coronavirus, had strikingly severe struggles on both sides of the ball. Lawrence, who is widely anticipated to become the No. 1 selection in the 2021 N.F.L. draft, lost for only the second time in his career as a starter. He threw for 400 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Travis Etienne, who holds the Atlantic Coast Conference’s record for career rushing yards, added 32 to his tally on Friday but fell short in his effort to reach 5,000 rushing yards during his four seasons at Clemson.
Indeed, the numbers that Clemson’s stars logged were nowhere near enough against an Ohio State offense whose potency went mostly unchecked.
The win propelled Ohio State into the title game for the first time since the 2014 season, when the playoff era debuted and the Buckeyes won the championship.
They had been left out ever since, with every national title game featuring Alabama, Clemson or both.
For its part, Alabama (12-0) had little difficulty dispatching No. 4 Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, which was played in Texas because of public health restrictions connected to the pandemic. Alabama prevailed, 31-14, with its quarterback, Mac Jones, completing 83 percent of his passes.
DeVonta Smith, the Crimson Tide’s top receiver and, along with Jones, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, had 130 receiving yards and caught three touchdowns. And Najee Harris, a running back, logged 125 rushing yards.
It’s ugly for Clemson and stunning for Justin Fields.
Despite an injury earlier in the Sugar Bowl, Fields just fired off a 45-yard pass to Jameson Williams for his sixth touchdown throw of Friday night. He’s passed for 385 yards and, having completed 22 of 26 throws, has more touchdowns than incompletions.
The score is 49-21, Ohio State, as the Sugar Bowl starting quarterback who didn’t make this season’s Heisman finalist cut seizes his moment in New Orleans.
An interception at the beginning of the third quarter allowed Clemson to be the first to put points up in a nine-play, 80-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown catch by Cornell Powell.
But that strong start was overshadowed by a 56-yard touchdown throw by Justin Fields, caught by wide receiver Chris Olave.
Then a fumble by Trevor Lawrence — which slipped through his fingers and took a little while to sort out on the field — followed by a sack on Fields, which had him limping for a second, both metaphorically summed up the game so far.
Ohio State is up 42-21 going into the final quarter.
On second thought, maybe Clemson should find the panic button (or push it again).
Not long after Clemson dodged a calamity on an Ohio State possession, Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields threw a 56-yard pass to hit Chris Olave in the end zone. The throw propelled Ohio State’s total yardage for Friday night past 500 yards, with 329 of them through the air.
Clemson has 281 yards on the night.
The score is 42-21, Ohio State, with less than five minutes left in the third quarter.
Clemson was about to press the panic button. Or maybe the Tigers did, and it quickly worked.
With Ohio State on the verge of scoring early in the third quarter, Mike Jones Jr. intercepted Justin Fields’s tipped pass in the end zone, extinguishing a drive that had moments earlier appeared poised to give the Buckeyes a 28-point lead.
But with Clemson still down by 21, Trevor Lawrence, one of the modern game’s finer quarterbacks, stood behind his offensive line, seemingly as unfazed as ever, and got to work.
He started with a 13-yard slant pass to E.J. Williams, a freshman wide receiver. Then a pass to Amari Rodgers for a nine-yard gain. Brannon Spector reached midfield when he caught an eight-yard pass. And so on.
Ultimately, on the ninth play of the drive, Cornell Powell rumbled into the end zone, his left hand gripping the ball and extending it over the goal line.
35-21, Ohio State. Clemson, though, has a bit of life with less than eight minutes to play in the third quarter.
Justin Fields threw four touchdown passes; Trevor Lawrence rushed for one. While Lawrence has not had as much time with the ball, Fields seems lucky to still be playing.
Despite differences on the field tonight, the story of these two quarterbacks is actually quite similar.
Fields went to Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga., about a half-hour drive away from where Lawrence played in Cartersville. While Lawrence set himself apart at an early age — 3,042 yards and 26 touchdowns as a starting quarterback in his freshman year — Fields was slower to bloom.
“We have kind of been matched up for years going back to high school,” Lawrence said this week. “I haven’t really seen it as that. We’re just out here. We’re friends and we have a good relationship.”
Going into the second half of the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State is up, 35-14.
Lawrence and Fields trained with the same private coach in high school. In 2017, Lawrence broke Georgia’s record for passing yards and passing touchdowns, set by Deshaun Watson, who also went to Clemson. In two years as a starter for Harrison, Fields had 4,187 passing yards, 41 passing touchdowns, 2,096 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns.
Both of them were five-star recruits going into college, with Lawrence signing to Clemson and Fields committing to Georgia. Lawrence found his footing fast while Fields transferred to Ohio State in 2019. The two quarterbacks faced off once more in the Fiesta Bowl, which Clemson won over Ohio State, 29-23.
“It is pretty self-explanatory that that game hurt us a lot last year,” Fields said this week. “So, that has kind of been our whole motivation this offseason.”
Lawrence has lost one game in his Clemson career — the national championship game against Louisiana State last season (he was out with the coronavirus when Clemson lost to Notre Dame earlier this season). Fields, during his tenure at Ohio State, has only lost to Clemson.
Last year, Fields was up for the Heisman Trophy but lost to Joe Burrow. This year, Lawrence has a shot though is up against some stiff competition, especially from two Alabama players.
Both Fields and Lawrence are considered likely to go in the top five of the 2021 N.F.L. draft — with Lawrence perhaps at No. 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fields to follow.
Clemson, ordinarily sharp in virtually every way on the football field, is in trouble in New Orleans.
Yes, it’s only halftime. Yes, Trevor Lawrence is a quarterback whose offense can work rapid wonders. But the scoreboard says Ohio State is in front, 35-14, and a 21-point deficit to the third-ranked Buckeyes is hardly the scenario that the Tigers wanted.
And they’ve lost a crucial defender, James Skalski, to targeting. So with Ohio State leading at the intermission, here are a few quick takeaways.
All eyes on Justin Fields: The Ohio State quarterback struggled off the field in the wake of the hit that led to Skalski’s disqualification and retreated to a medical tent. He returned to the game, but his availability and condition in the second half could prove important if Clemson resurrects its offense and poses a significant threat.
At halftime, Fields was 16-for-18 with his passes and had thrown for 223 yards.
The Buckeyes also have a highlight-reel worthy running game: Ohio State ran for 171 yards in the first half. In the whole of the Big Ten championship, they put together 399 rushing yards, 305 of them in the second half. Trey Sermon is doing most of the running work so far in the Sugar Bowl, having rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging about seven yards a carry.
Clemson doesn’t (at least tonight): The Tigers recorded only 44 rushing yards in the first half. They’ve averaged 164 a game this season.
Ugly drives for Clemson: Three possessions ended in three-and-outs. Clemson’s total yardage tonight: 201 yards.
Ohio State has already rolled up 394 and is set to get the ball to start the second half. One note of consolation for Clemson: The Tigers were down to Ohio State in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl before pulling off a victory that vaulted them into the national championship game.
The biggest crisis of the night for Ohio State began and ended quickly — maybe.
Justin Fields, Ohio State’s quarterback, went down about midway through the second quarter after being hit hard at the end of an 11-yard run.
Fields left the field under his own power after medical officials evaluated him on the turf. Soon after, the officials issued a targeting call against James Skalski, a 240-pound linebacker from Sharpsburg, Ga.
Skalski was disqualified from the game and C.J. Stroud, a true freshman, took a snap for Ohio State. Then Fields returned and threw a nine-yard pass for a touchdown.
28-14, Ohio State.
But Fields struggled back to the sideline after the touchdown and was examined again by team medical officials.
Ohio State has its first lead of the night. All it took was a 17-yard pass from Justin Fields to Jeremy Ruckert, a junior tight end.
Early in the second quarter, it’s clear that the Buckeyes are settling in at the Superdome: Since their opening possession, when they went three-and-out, they have finished the rest of their drives with touchdowns.
Fields did plenty of the work on the most recent drive for Ohio State, passing for 45 yards but also rushing for 17.
It took just over four minutes for Ohio State to go 84 yards.
Early verdict: The Sugar Bowl will not be a rerun of Friday’s Rose Bowl.
Clemson and Ohio State have been playing for less than 14 minutes in New Orleans. They’re tied at 14 apiece.
For College Football Playoff context, Alabama and Notre Dame combined for 45 points across 60 minutes in Texas, where the Rose Bowl was played because of public health restrictions in California.
It was always a safe bet that we’d see plenty of scoring in the Sugar Bowl — what else would you expect with Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence starting at quarterback? — but these drives are efficient. (When Ohio State and Clemson met last season, Clemson prevailed 29-23.)
In the first quarter of Friday’s game, Clemson’s scoring drives took fewer than three minutes each. Ohio State proved even speedier with one touchdown, taking 72 seconds to score. By the standards of this game, the Buckeyes languished their way to a second touchdown, taking nearly three and a half minutes.
And it’s been feast or famine so far for both teams: They’ve either scored touchdowns or gone three-and-out.
Travis Etienne is nothing short of decorated. No surprise he ran in a touchdown for Clemson with 5:01 left in the first quarter. Clemson is up, 14-7.
Etienne holds the Football Bowl Subdivision record for the most games with a touchdown (46) and the Atlantic Coast Conference record for total rushing touchdowns and overall touchdowns (70 rushing TDs, 78 total). He is also one of 12 players in F.B.S. history with 4,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a career.
He has rushed for 4,929 yards at Clemson, including 9 yards at the Sugar Bowl. He needs 71 yards to become the first to run for 5,000 yards in A.C.C. history — a mark he could hit if he matches his season average tonight. (Tony Dorsett rushed for 6,526 yards in the 1970s for the University of Pittsburgh, but the university did not join the A.C.C. until 2011.)
Prior to Friday’s game, Etienne had rushed for 882 yards this season, with 13 rushing touchdowns in 11 games. He is a Doak Walker Award finalist.
Raised in Jennings, La., Etienne has family watching in person at the Superdome in New Orleans, he said this week. “With Covid and the pandemic and everything going on, I’m very grateful that they’re going to be able to see me play in the Superdome,” he said.
The last time he played at the Superdome was last season, when Clemson lost the national championship to Louisiana State. This is his chance to make it right, he said.
“At this point I am kind of tired of talking about what I’m going to do with it,” he said of the opportunity. “I’m just grateful for it. I’m just ready to get to that point and just going to try to make it right. I’m just ready for the game.”
He graduated with a degree in sports communication this month and is expected to be picked early in the 2021 N.F.L. draft.
Justin Fields’ thumb is not a problem, at least not yet.
Ohio State’s quarterback, who said that he likely sprained his thumb in the Big Ten Conference championship, connected with running back Trey Sermon on a long pass and then Sermon had another long run for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown of the night. Sermon has rushed for 40 yards already.
With 7:59 left in the first quarter, the score is all tied up, 7-7.
Dabo Swinney has infuriated plenty of people this year. He complained about Florida State canceling a game against Clemson because of coronavirus issues. He objected to the N.C.A.A. making Election Day a mandatory off-day. And so on.
So it was only fitting that Clemson’s coach would rank Ohio State, the No. 3 team in the playoff field, as No. 11 in the most recent Amway Coaches Poll.
“I didn’t rank anybody who didn’t play nine games or more in the top 10,” Swinney said this week. “Nobody. And then after that, I said, OK, anybody who played at all, that’s how I will rank that group. And that’s why they were 11.”
Swinney, of course, added all the appropriate caveats: that Ohio State was good enough to win the title, that the Buckeyes have “a wonderful program,” that it’s nothing personal, that it’s not gamesmanship.
“It’s not that they’re not good enough,” Swinney said. “I just don’t think it’s right that three teams have to play 13 games to be the champion and one team has to play eight.”
And he confessed he knew he’d be “the poster child” for that perspective, which is hardly an isolated one.
“I could probably run for governor in Michigan and might have a good chance,” Swinney said, “but probably not very popular in Ohio.”
Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said this week that Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables “seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing in terms of the plays that they’re running.”
“Why that is, I don’t really know. But I can tell you that he’s been doing it for a long time,” Day added.
Ohio State, unable to play more than six games this year because of coronavirus issues, has had to practice a variety of strategies for advancing the ball.
“This is going to be a stressful game because of all the stress that Clemson brings with their different looks, different formations, different fronts, coverages, pressures, twists, blitzes,” said Kevin Wilson, Ohio State’s offensive coordinator.
Clemson’s defense is ranked sixth overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Ohio State’s is 34th.
The Buckeyes defense lost top players in Chase Young and Jeff Okudah to the 2020 draft. This year, they have given up an average of 358 yards per game. But Tony Elliott, Clemson’s offensive coordinator, expected Ohio State’s best.
“Once they diagnose, they know their drop spots, their reading routes,” Elliott said this week. “A lot of this stuff is very similar to last year, with a difference — only difference is just the names and the faces.”
Elliott was not able to come to the Sugar Bowl because he tested positive for the coronavirus, Head Coach Dabo Swinney said Wednesday.
Justin Fields threw more interceptions than touchdowns the last time his Ohio State Buckeyes met Clemson. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the college game, and although Ohio State struggled against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, a crucial wide receiver, Chris Olave, is back and could make life a lot easier for the team from Columbus.
Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator, couldn’t say enough good things about both players.
Of Fields, who has passed for more than 5,000 yards in a college career that spanned Georgia and Ohio State: “Can do it all. Can run. Can throw with precision. Run with strength and play with great poise. He’s a great leader, very natural. Got an incredible skill set. Great presence in the pocket. And he’s, without question, their leader on offense, so everything goes through him.”
Of Olave, a favored receiver for Fields: “Can take the top off the defense, very savvy. Really understands the ball and can make all the competitive plays. He’s got speed, length, size, toughness, savviness.”
Olave, of course, might not be the only issue for Clemson. Garrett Wilson leads the team with 621 receiving yards this season, and the tailback Trey Sermon averages 8 yards a carry.