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Justin Fields outduels Trevor Lawrence as Ohio State upsets Clemson in playoff semifinal

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields celebrates a touchdown against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Friday. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

Justin Fields put No. 1 Alabama — and the NFL — on notice with a masterful Sugar Bowl

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.”

In the College Football Playoff landscape, a small collection of teams dominate the list of participants. And because Clemson and Ohio State reside in that upper echelon of title-contending programs, they had met under these circumstances a few times before.

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.

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