It took them four plays. It took them 78 seconds. It ended with 1:49 left. It went boom, boom, boom and boom.
“It was just a real poise,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.
Lawrence threw 11 yards to the right to Justyn Ross. Lawrence backed briefly into the pocket and then roamed an open prairie to his right for 11 more. Lawrence threw deep down the middle to Amari Rodgers for 38 yards to the 34-yard line.
Then, for the kind of touchdown that decorates a story, the sophomore quarterback and defending national champion pretended to tuck in the ball to run, something he had done 16 times for 107 sorely needed yards — including a 67-yard touchdown stomp before halftime — then looked up and threw. It went a short way to monster running back Travis Etienne, who blasted the last 25 yards or so for another touchdown for a dynasty’s gathering collection of moments, while giving Etienne a team-leading 98 yards on three receptions.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Lawrence said on the field afterward.
Ohio State wound up as both great and sad and set to cringe for as long as memories allow. The Buckeyes led 16-0 early on and 23-21 after a masterful 84-yard drive from pilot Justin Fields, whose 23-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave came on fourth-and-one and 11:46 from the end. They also killed off almost seven minutes from the 9:59 mark to the 3:07 mark on their next possession, before punting. They also moved 52 more yards through the gasping final two minutes to both the Clemson 23-yard line and the frayed nerve endings of 71,330.
On a second down with 43 seconds left, Fields threw down the middle to the end zone, with Olave zigzagging left in what Fields called a basic miscommunication. The ball flew toward nowhere until safety Nolan Turner ran across and intercepted it, Fields’s second interception of the night and just his third across 14 long games of late summer, fall and early winter.
He grabbed his helmet on both sides, perhaps a metaphor for the Buckeye-minded who will require strong stomachs to relive this nutty game in which their team won the total-yards category by 516-417. Ryan Day, Ohio State’s first-year coach, found it “tough to go into a locker room with such a great team who played their hearts out,” called himself “proud, sad and angry,” and called it “very hard to swallow right now.”
The closing interception joined a list of agonies and grievances sure to rev up many a conversation in Columbus and beyond through New Year’s and beyond. They included a roughing-the-punter foul early in the third quarter, which enabled Lawrence’s 53-yard, screen-pass touchdown to Etienne, which supplied Clemson’s first lead at 21-16. Other turns proved still harsher.
Thrice the Buckeyes got bad news from video reviews: on an apparent touchdown catch from star running back J.K. Dobbins in the second quarter that turned out incomplete, on a targeting call 4:47 before half-time that altered a 16-0 game, and finally, amid the third quarter, on an apparent fumble-recovery touchdown. On that last one, Lawrence pitched one out on a hapless third-and-19 to Ross, who clutched the pass between his hands but never pulled it to his gut because his back had the All-American cornerback Jeff Okudah draped upon it. Okudah plucked out the ball, which lay on the ground like a large piece of candy until Jordan Fuller took it and stormed 29 yards down the left sideline to the end zone.
The Ohio State semicircle around the stadium bounced madly until it groaned angrily, the latter after a review rendered the pass an incompletion.
By then, they had gotten to know the sinking feeling.
For a yawning spell at the outset, Ohio State provided the country’s latest critique of Clemson’s schedule. It made things look like Clemson hadn’t seen anything like it while looking as if it had seen things like Clemson. It would roll through the program with the 28-game win streak for 296 first-half yards, more than all but one of those previous 13 gained in entire games.
It would set loose Dobbins, the back with breathtaking amounts of will and skill who quickly electrified the stat sheet to reach 141 rushing yards on six carries. Sixty-eight of that came on a touchdown midway through the first quarter on which Dobbins blasted past end Xavier Thomas at the line, subjected safety K’Von Wallace to an unwanted 360 and outran much of the state of South Carolina. Another 64 came on a run up the right that ended eight yards from the end zone only because safety Tanner Muse barely tripped Dobbins from behind.
Still, the Buckeyes’ populous devotees had to wonder about an undercurrent beneath the dominance: three stalls for three field goals from three aching distances: 21, 23 and 33 yards. “The red-zone responses were huge and, at the end of the day, the difference in the game,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. The middle one came after Dobbins apparently caught a five-yard touchdown and then, after review, apparently did not.
Ohio State led 16-0 when many might have dreamed it 28-0.
Meanwhile, Clemson looked gummed-up and off-kilter, operating in spaces smaller and more crowded than accustomed. Its mighty receivers found sticky company. It kept tripping up on third-and-not-so-long.
On a third-and-four from the Ohio State 45-yard line, Lawrence had J.C. Chalk open beyond the marker but defensive end Tyreke Smith gamely batted down the ball. On a third-and-two from the Ohio State 45-yard line, Lawrence faked and dropped back and wound up amid the menacing inconvenience of defensive tackle Robert Landers and then defensive end Tyler Friday. On a third-and-two from the Clemson 33-yard line, linebacker Pete Werner crashed in to limit Travis Etienne to one yard.
But on third-and-5 from the Ohio State 45-yard line just 4:47 to halftime, the ground began shifting. Lawrence waited to throw, and cornerback Shaun Wade waited to blitz, and Wade made a searing line toward Lawrence, ramming into him and getting help from his mates as the giant quarterback teetered, dropped and stayed prone briefly.
It wrecked the drive and reintroduced the punter.
But as the witnesses tried to gauge Lawrence’s condition, the officials in the booth tried to assess the play. They ruled targeting against Wade, who looked gutted, said farewell to his mates and departed with his automatic disqualification. It resuscitated Clemson and rearranged the game. “This was a crown-of-the-helmet foul,” referee Ken Williamson said afterward. “So it did eliminate a lot of other factors. Initial contact was with the crown of the helmet. Then he wrapped up for the tackle. So at that point, targeting was properly called.”
“That targeting call was huge,” Lawrence said.
Soon, the Tigers got 15 yards on an interference penalty and the final eight when Etienne ventured right, untangled himself from safety Fuller and romped past Friday. The score stood 16-7 and looked drastically different from 16-0.
Ohio State stalled, and Lawrence backed up on a second-and-10, bolted through a gap created by all-American guard John Simpson, put a swell juke on safety Josh Proctor, reached the left sideline and scored from 67 yards out. That made it 16-14, and that made things hairy.
Live updates and highlights, by Jacob Bogage in Washington, can be found below.
December 28, 2019 at 11:59 PM EST
Fields throws another interception
And that will end the game. Clemson moves on to face LSU in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Ohio State drove to the Clemson 23-yard line, but a miscommunication between Justin Fields and Chris Olave led to an interception in the end zone that seals the Tigers’ 29-23 win.
December 28, 2019 at 11:49 PM EST
Tigers strike back
If the result holds, it’s a play that will be replayed over and over again on highlight reels. Trevor Lawrence faked a run then tossed a pop pass to Travis Etienne, who ran 34 yards for a score. It was an incredibly efficient go-ahead drive for Clemson. Starting at their own 6-yard line, Lawrence hit Justyn Ross over the middle for 11 yards, then ran for 11 himself. Amari Rodgers caught his first pass of the night and went for 38 yards, and then Lawrence found Etienne. The Buckeyes have 1:49 left to answer and win the right to face LSU in the College Football Playoff national championship game. The Tigers went for the two-point conversion and Lawrence under pressure found Tee Higgins in the back of the end zone. (Clemson 29, Ohio State 23, 1:49 fourth quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 11:23 PM EST
Ohio State retakes the lead
Justin Fields bounced back from his second interception of the year to find Chris Olave for a 23-yard score on fourth and one. The Buckeyes forced Clemson to punt after the interception, then went 84 yards in 13 plays. The score makes the missed 49-yard field goal in the first quarter from Clemson’s B.T. Potter loom large. And the Tigers don’t have tremendous confidence in Potter, who has been iffy all year. He is 12-of-19 on the season and 50 percent on kicks between 30 and 49 yards. (Ohio State 23, Clemson 21, 11:46 fourth quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 11:06 PM EST
Justin Fields picked off
Clemson’s defense is dominating the second half. Ohio State has missed on its last six third downs now, and this time — a third-and-eight from just inside Tiger territory — Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was intercepted by Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons. It sets the Tigers up at their own 47-yard line. (Clemson 21, Ohio State 16, 4:13, third quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 10:47 PM EST
Tigers take the lead
Comeback complete: Clemson has clawed its way back to take a 21-16 lead over Ohio State, and it was another Buckeyes penalty that helped the Tigers get there. Pinned deep in their own territory, Clemson punted on fourth-and-6, but a roughing the kicker penalty preserved the drive, which went 99 yards in seven plays. Trevor Lawrence dropped a screen pass off to halfback Travis Etienne, who did the rest, running 53 yards untouched. (Clemson 21, Ohio State 16, 7:54 third quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 10:32 PM EST
J.K. Dobbins limps off for Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ star running back tweaked an ankle at the end of the first half and a couple plays into the second half, it’s clear Dobbins is not right. Running a routine route into the flat and without any defenders around him, Dobbins began limping. He walked off the field with Ohio State medical staff and went straight to the locker room.
December 28, 2019 at 10:03 PM EST
Halftime at the Fiesta Bowl
A wild end to the second quarter had third-seeded Clemson within two points of second-seeded Ohio State at halftime of the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes lead, 16-14, after a hot start, but the Tigers scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes of the half, and will receive the kickoff to start the third quarter. Clemson finally found its footing after a poor first quarter. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence sprinted for a 67-yard touchdown to end the half. Halfback Travis Etienne a possession earlier stiff-armed his way to pay dirt for an eight-yard score.
Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins dominated on the ground with 142 yards rushing and touchdown, but dropped two more sure touchdown passes from quarterback Justin Fields that forced the Buckeyes to settle for field goals. (Halftime: Ohio State 16, Clemson 14)
December 28, 2019 at 9:55 PM EST
Lawrence scrambles for a touchdown
The Tigers are right back in this game. Trevor Lawrence is apparently no worse for the wear after that targeting call. He took a designed quarterback draw right up the middle of the Ohio State defense, scooted past two defensive backs and galloped 67 yards for a score. Clemson’s defense looks a lot better now after holding the Buckeyes to several field goals rather than touchdowns. (Ohio State 16, Clemson 14, 1:10 second quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 9:44 PM EST
Tigers get on the board
Could Clemson’s comeback be on? On the option play, Trevor Lawrence pitched to halfback Travis Etienne, who stiff-armed a defender, then cut back inside to score from eight yards out. It capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was aided by two big Ohio State penalties: a targeting foul on a sack of Lawrence and a pass interference call deep in Buckeye territory. (Ohio State 16, Clemson 7, 2:45 second quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 9:39 PM EST
Trevor Lawrence down for Clemson
Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade sacked Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on third-and-5, and defensive end Chase Young came in to finish the play. The hit felled Lawrence, who was down on the turf receiving some medical attention. Officials charged Wade with a targeting foul and ejected him from the game. Lawrence returned after one snap out of the game.
December 28, 2019 at 9:31 PM EST
Another field goal for the Buckeyes
The Tigers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense would be commendable, but that approach only works if Clemson’s offense can score some points. So far, it’s been unable to, and Ohio State, which blew another sure touchdown after another drop by J.K. Dobbins, tacked on another field goal from Blake Haubeil. (Ohio State 16, Clemson 0, 7:20 second quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 9:12 PM EST
Ohio State adds another field goal
The Buckeyes could have had a touchdown, but J.K. Dobbins couldn’t hang on to a swing pass from Justin Fields in the end zone. Instead, Blake Haubeil kicked his second field goal of the game, this time from 22 yards. (Ohio State 13, Clemson 0, 14:11 second quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 8:42 PM EST
J.K. Dobbins strikes for Ohio State
The Buckeyes can score from anywhere on the field, and running back J.K. Dobbins just proved it. He took a handoff from Justin Fields and romped 68 yards untouched up the middle of the defense. (Ohio State 10, Clemson 0, 8:35 first quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 8:39 PM EST
Clemson can’t answer
The Tigers drove to the Ohio State 32-yard line, but that Buckeyes defense held there to force a 49-yard field goal attempt from B.T. Potter, which was wide right. (Ohio State 3, Clemson 0, 8:44 first quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 8:29 PM EST
Ohio State starts with a field goal
The Buckeyes started at breakneck speed, driving 71 yards down to the Clemson 4-yard line. But the Tiger defense made a goal-line stand and forced a 21-yard field goal from Blake Haubeil. (Ohio State 3, Clemson 0, 12:03 first quarter)
December 28, 2019 at 8:20 PM EST
And we’re off
Ohio State receives the opening kickoff and will start at the 25-yard line.
December 28, 2019 at 8:15 PM EST
Winner will face LSU
The Tigers defeated Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl and shattered handfuls of records along the way. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow accounted for eight touchdowns, seven passing and one rushing, and threw for 493 yards.
December 28, 2019 at 7:30 PM EST
What you need to know
Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
December 28, 2019 at 7:29 PM EST
Two heavyweights collide
It bears repeating that the Tigers (13-0), the national champions two of the last three seasons, are the only team in the bracket with players on their roster who’ve participated in a national championship game. The Buckeyes haven’t been back to the College Football Playoff final since winning the thing after the 2014 season, which is eons ago in college football.
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, meanwhile, has three final appearances and those two titles to his name. He won the last on the arm of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was then just a freshman and put together another great season as a sophomore. He’s thrown for 3,172 yards and 34 touchdowns, and hasn’t thrown an interception since the middle of October, though he has eight on the season. Running back Travis Etienne, who himself has played in three playoff games, has eight 100-yard games this season and has rushed for 1,500 yards with 17 touchdowns.
Swinney is hoping that combination, plus a defense that leads the nation in both yards and points allowed, will contain Ohio State, which has proved the ability to open up a big lead in a moment’s notice. Quarterback Justin Fields has thrown for 2,953 yards (the least of any quarterback in the playoff) and 40 touchdowns with one single, solitary interception. Five receivers — K.J. Hill, Chris Olave, Binjimen Victor, Garrett Wilson and Austin Mack — have at least 20 catches. Running back J.K. Dobbins, likely a future NFL ball carrier, has rushed for 1,829 yards (the most of any back in the playoff) and 20 touchdowns.
Ohio State won all 13 of its games this season by double digits, becoming just the second Football Bowl Subdivision team, along with Florida State in 2013, to start a season with 13 straight double-digit wins.