Justin Fields fell to the turf, pain pulsating through his body after the helmet of a defender smashed into his rib cage. Ohio State had finally taken a lead over Clemson, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Fields, its leader and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. But in that moment, late in the second quarter of Friday night’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, with so much of the College Football Playoff semifinal still waiting to be played, the Buckeyes’ optimism teetered on the brink of fading.
A chance to play for a national title stood ahead of Fields. Behind him was the time he fell short — the semifinal a year ago, also against Clemson, when he suffered his only loss as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. And so Fields continued to play, guiding the No. 3 Buckeyes to a 49-28 win and a spot in the national championship game, where they will face No. 1 Alabama on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
After an up-and-down season, Fields performed at his best as he propelled Ohio State ahead of the No. 2 Tigers. He delivered accurate passes with poise and toughness, throwing for 385 yards and six touchdowns. Every throw hurt, Fields said, but somehow that thought escaped his mind during each play.
“This is a feeling like no other,” Fields said. “I know my body's going to be hurting tomorrow morning, but it's worth it for this win and for my teammates. That's really what pushed me.”
After Fields rushed for an 11-yard gain during the second quarter, Clemson linebacker James Skalski tackled him short of the first-down marker. But Skalski hit Fields with the crown of his helmet, so he was called for targeting and ejected, leaving Clemson without one of its best defenders. Fields missed one play, then sandwiched a dart to the end zone between grimaces of pain. When asked what moment from Fields stood out the most, Coach Ryan Day recalled that image — Fields holding the side of his torso as he ran off the field after a touchdown.
“We had to figure out what he could and couldn’t do for a while,” Day said, referring to how the injury limited Fields. “We kind of figured that part of it out. He couldn’t do everything, but what a gutsy performance, what a tough and special young man Justin Fields is.”
Running back Trey Sermon added another dimension to this Ohio State offense with 193 rushing yards and a touchdown — a needed reprieve for Fields, whose pain lingered throughout the evening.
The Sugar Bowl was a much-anticipated dual between Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, top-tier quarterbacks unfamiliar with losing and prone to generating electrifying performances. Lawrence, pegged as the projected first pick in this year’s NFL draft, produced the more impressive season, and he had a solid outing Friday — 400 passing yards with two touchdowns and an interception. But the Ohio State offense led by Fields produced the championship-caliber performance.
Fields and the rest of the Ohio State offense powered to 639 yards as Lawrence slipped into an unexpected predicament, trailing 42-21 late in the third quarter. Before this game, Lawrence had only lost once — last year’s national championship game against LSU in the same building — but he has now presumably ended his remarkable college career with a 34-2 record as Clemson’s starter.
“Obviously tonight didn't go well,” Lawrence said, “but I know that the way I prepared, the way this team prepared, and then just this whole year, the way we've carried ourselves, I'm proud of it.”
Fields’s lone mistake came just after halftime, when he threw an interception, grabbed by Clemson linebacker Mike Jones Jr. in the end zone. (“That was my fault,” Day said. “I should have run the ball. I shouldn’t have put him in that spot.”) The Tigers trailed by 21 at the time, but they responded to Ohio State’s miscue with a 80-yard touchdown march, a sequence that suggested the Buckeyes would not run away with this win so easily. But on the following series, Fields launched a deep ball to wide receiver Chris Olave, who caught the impeccable 56-yard pass in stride on his way to the end zone.
With 132 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Olave was Fields’s most reliable target, but plenty of others contributed. Fields delivered another long touchdown strike in the fourth quarter, this time to freshman Jameson Williams for 45 yards. Tight ends had three of Ohio State’s touchdown receptions — two from Jeremy Ruckert and one from Luke Farrell.
Fields struggled in a couple of the Buckeyes’ recent games, including in the win over Northwestern for the Big Ten title. He threw a combined five interceptions against Northwestern and Indiana, the two toughest opponents Ohio State faced before Friday.
Day said he told his quarterback: “You go out and play good in this game and you win this game, nobody is going to remember the Big Ten championship game. They’ll remember this one. And they’ll remember it for a long time in the history of Ohio State football.”
But ever since Ohio State’s 2014 team won the title in the inaugural playoff, Dabo Swinney’s powerhouse program in South Carolina had stood in the way of the Buckeyes’ national championship aspirations. In 2016, the Tigers rolled past the Buckeyes with a 31-0 win in the semifinal, and last season, Ohio State blew a 16-0 lead against Clemson in a game that still tastes bitter to Buckeyes fans. The semifinal loss hurt, and then motivated, the Ohio State players, who looked at that painful 29-23 final score on a sign in the weight room this offseason.
The previous meeting between these teams ended with a mistake. Fields lifted his hands to his helmet in disbelief after a miscommunication with his receiver led to Clemson’s game-sealing interception. This edition of the matchup ended with joy for the Buckeyes.
“Because of the way it all played out, because it was Clemson, just like we played them last year, I think that had a lot of added flavor to it,” Day said. “And a lot of guys left that field feeling like they let one get away. In life you don’t typically get an opportunity to get a second chance, but you can’t miss the second time.”
Ohio State’s defense did its part, holding firm against Clemson’s prolific offense, which started the game with an exquisite opening drive. But after a surge in the second quarter, when Ohio State tallied 229 yards compared with Clemson’s 34, the Tigers spent the rest of the game chasing the Buckeyes from behind.
“It’s a hurting locker room,” Swinney said. “We haven’t lost many games around here in a long time, and this one hurt.”
Clemson’s offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, tested positive for the coronavirus this week and was not available to coach this game. With limited time to prepare for the switch, passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter called plays during the semifinal. Ohio State also contained Clemson running back Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher; he finished with 32 rushing yards.
This game, regardless of the result, was in many ways precisely what the Buckeyes wanted this season. They had a chance. And for a few weeks late this summer, that wasn’t the case. After the Big Ten canceled its fall season, citing safety concerns about playing during a pandemic, Fields started a petition, pleading with decision-makers to reverse course. And when Fields participated in a video call with college football players across the country, Lawrence and Clemson running back Darien Rencher also took part in the conversation, which culminated in the #WeWantToPlay movement.
The Big Ten ultimately decided to play, albeit with a shortened and delayed season. Because of cancellations caused by outbreaks, the Buckeyes only played six games before Friday’s matchup, which sparked debate about whether they were worthy of inclusion in the playoff. Because of the team’s rocky path to this point, Day said before this game that his program had “an opportunity to write one of the greatest stories in the history of college football.” The performance of Fields and his teammates Friday proved the Buckeyes belong on this stage, and their impressive performance ensured Ohio State’s story of the season will continue.
— Emily Giambalvo
The live updates below were reported by Kareem Copeland.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw his first interception of the night to essentially end the game. The fourth-quarter throw into the end zone was batted around and picked off by Sevyn Banks. Amari Rodgers briefly had the ball, but it was punched out and into the hands of Banks.
Ohio State got the ball with 1:30 remaining and a 49-28 lead. The Buckeyes knelt out the clock to win the game and will face No. 1 Alabama for the national championship Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Ohio State outgained Clemson 639 yards to 444. Quarterback Justin Fields threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns. Trey Sermon rushed for 193 yards and a touchdown for OSU. Receiver Chris Olave had six receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
Trying to stay alive, Clemson scores on Trevor Lawrence TD pass
Clemson kept its slim chances alive with a 26-yard touchdown from Trevor Lawrence to Cornell Powell. The score cuts Ohio State’s lead to 49-28 with 10:42 remaining in the game.
The Tigers desperately needed points after OSU quarterback Justin Fields threw a 45-yard touchdown with 14:03 left in the game. Clemson quickly answered, but the 26-yard pass came on third-and-16 with the Tigers looking to be in major trouble. A pretty route run by Powell shook defenders and left him wide open.
Lawrence now has 306 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and one rushing score. The Tigers only have 61 rushing yards, and a banged up Travis Etienne only has 13 touches and hasn’t looked like himself.
Ohio State takes 49-21 lead off sixth Justin Fields TD pass
Goodnight Clemson: Ohio State is now less than 15 minutes away from playing No. 1 Alabama in the national championship game in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Jan. 11.
The Buckeyes unofficially put the Tigers to bed on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields to Jameson Williams with 14:03 remaining. The score extended the lead to an embarrassing 49-21 as the Tigers have been dominated in every way. The touchdown pass capped a two-play, 59-yard drive.
Clemson may have just received its death knell as quarterback Trevor Lawrence lost a fumble with the team still trailing by 21 points late in the third quarter. The Tigers’ defense has been manhandled on all but one drive and the Buckeyes could put the game away with another score.
Lawrence kept the ball on a read-option and was immediately hit by a pair of defenders. As he was going to the ground, the ball shifted in his hands and slipped out as he hit the turf. Lawrence was on his back with one hand on the top of the ball when an Ohio State defender reached down to pick the ball up. Justin Hilliard eventually came up with the loose ball and the play went to review, though it was initially ruled a fumble. The play held up after review and Ohio State got the ball at its own 43-yard line.
Justin Fields unleashes 56-yard touchdown pass, OSU up 42-21
Justin Fields quickly made up for his first interception of the game with a 56-yard touchdown pass that showed off the Ohio State quarterback’s arm strength. The pass seemed to hang in the air forever as it perfectly dropped into Chris Olave’s hands, just beyond a defender who wasn’t in awful position. The throw carried 62 yards in the air.
The score put the Buckeyes up 42-21 with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter as Fields now has 329 passing yards and five touchdowns.
Clemson seemed to have found life after the interception and scoring on the ensuing possession. The defense was poised to get off the field with a three-and-out, but Fields hit Trey Sermon for a 14-yard reception on third-and-10. Fields threw the touchdown four plays later.
Clemson still alive after taking advantage of turnover, trails 35-21
Clemson receiver Cornell Powell made two huge plays, including catching a 10-yard touchdown, to give the Tigers offense some life after a miserable, scoreless second quarter. The score cut the Ohio State lead to 35-21 after the Clemson defense picked off Justin Fields in the end zone.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed 5 of 6 passes during the drive, and a 29-yarder to Powell moved Clemson to the OSU 10-yard line. Powell injected some juice into the entire offense at the end of the catch as he hit Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade with a nasty stiff arm along the sideline.
Ohio State made its first major mistake of the night when Justin Fields threw an interception for the first turnover of the game.
The Buckeyes were on the verge of blowing the game wide open on the first drive of the second half as they moved to the Clemson 12-yard line. Fields began to throw toward the end zone, but the ball seemed to be tipped and floated into a crowd of Tiger defenders. Linebacker Mike Jones Jr. came up with the interception and life was injected into a defense that had allowed five straight touchdown drives.
A crushing blow that left Justin Fields writhing on the ground wasn’t enough to stop the Ohio State quarterback. The Big Ten offensive player of the year just threw a 12-yard touchdown to tight end Jeremy Ruckert to take a commanding 35-14 lead over Clemson with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
The touchdown capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive that extended the lead to three touchdowns with 11 seconds before halftime.
With Fields clearly hurting after a pair of brutal hits, running back Trey Sermon picked up the slack early in the drive.
Sermon totaled 45 yards during the drive as he rushed for two first downs and caught a pass for a third. Fields was initially hurt on the previous drive when linebacker James Skalski unloaded on the quarterback at the end of an 11-yard run by lowering his helmet into the midsection. Skalski was ejected for targeting and Fields was left squirming on the ground. He took another hard hit during the last drive and needed help from teammates to get up.
Still, Fields threw a 26-yard strike to Ruckert to move the Buckeyes to the Clemson 12-yard line after the second blow. Two plays later, he threw the touchdown — the second since getting hurt. Fields has completed 16 of 18 passes for 223 yards and four touchdowns. Sermon has 121 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts.
Ohio State has scored five straight touchdowns after punting on its initial drive of the game. The Buckeyes have outgained the Tigers 394 yards to 201 and Clemson was 1 for 5 on third downs in the first half.
Justin Fields returns after brutal hit to throw touchdown
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was absolutely crushed at the end of an 11-yard run that left the Big Ten offensive player of the year on the ground in pain. Two plays later, he gave Ohio State a 14-point lead.
Linebacker James Skalski lowered his helmet and hit Fields in the rib/kidney area at the end of the rush that rocked the quarterback’s entire body. While Fields was being attended to by the medical staff, officials reviewed the play and Skalski was called for targeting and kicked out of the game.
Fields missed one play, then returned to throw a nine-yard touchdown to Chris Olave to extend the lead to 28-14. The quarterback was visibly in pain as he left the field after the score, wincing and holding the area that was hit.
Besides Fields’s heroics, running back Trey Sermon had the highlight of the drive with a 30-yard rush as he dipped under one would-be tackler, leaving the defender tumbling over his back. He then angled toward the sideline and straight-armed another Tiger in a failed attempt to get him to the ground.
The Buckeyes used nine plays to go 75 yards in 4:25 to take a two-touchdown lead with 5:12 remaining before halftime.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields showed off a bit of everything as the Buckeyes took their first lead at 21-14 with 10:35 remaining in the second quarter.
Fields had been using his arm to play catch-up against the Tigers, but Clemson had no answer for his legs on this drive. He busted loose for a 17-yard run to move into the red zone and threw a 17-yard touchdown to Jeremy Ruckert two plays later. Fields has completed 8 of 9 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 42 yards on five attempts.
The Clemson offense didn’t waste any time setting the tone in the Sugar Bowl, scoring a touchdown on the game’s opening drive to take a 7-0 lead over Ohio State.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence kept the football on a read option and outraced two Buckeyes to the pylon for a touchdown with 12:10 remaining in the game. Lawrence completed 4 of 5 passes during the eight-play, 82-yard drive.
The highlight of the drive came on a 27-yard reception from Lawrence to Cornell Powell on third-and-5 to extend the drive. Lawrence scored two plays later.