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OSU drops CFP thriller

By NATHAN BAIRD • Dec 29, 2019 at 12:30 AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ohio State football could not completely solve its greatest challenge, and its own drive for greatness fell one game shot.

Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne sparked a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final two minutes, and Clemson rallied past the Buckeyes 29-23 for a Fiesta Bowl victory in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Defending national champion Clemson (14-0) extended its winning streak to 29 games. The No. 3 seed Tigers advance to face No. 1 LSU (14-0), which crushed Oklahoma 63-28, in the national championship in New Orleans on Jan. 13.

Ohio State (13-1), making its first College Football Playoff appearance since 2016, was denied its second championship game trip in the six years of the tournament.

Ohio State punted the ball back to Clemson with 3:07 to play and a 23-21 lead. The Buckeyes' defense had solidified in the second half, forcing three consecutive punts at the end of the third and into the fourth quarters.

Lawrence needed only four plays, however, to put the Tigers back in the end zone. The final backbreaker was a 34-yard touchdown pass to Etienne — his second big score of the second half. Lawrence added a 2-point conversion pass to Tee Higgins to make it a 29-23 game with 1:49 to play.

That put the game in the hands of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields — who grew up in the same area of Georgia and has been linked with him since both were the top two recruits in the Class of 2018 national recruiting rankings.

Fields dumped off to J.K. Dobbins for a pair of passes to reach midfield. He fired over the middle to K.J. Hill, then found Dobbins again on the sideline for another first down. Dobbins had rushed for 144 yards on his first seven carries but was slowed by an ankle injury in the second half.

After an incompletion, Fields carried for a first down, then slid down just short of another. But with 37 seconds remaining, Chris Olave slipped and fell in front of the end zone and he and Fields appeared to miscommunicate on the route. Clemson safety Nolan Turner intercepted Fields’ pass to seal it

Fields came into the game with only two interceptions but threw two in the season-ending loss.

Ohio State led 16-14 at halftime. However, if not for missed opportunities and a call that swung the game's momentum 180 degrees, the Buckeyes could have led by much more.

J.K. Dobbins ran for a 68-yard touchdown and Blake Haubeil kicked three field goals. However, on the first two the Buckeyes had first and goal. On the third, they had first-and-10 at the Clemson 11.

Great teams often rise to the moment and deny opponents in the end zone. Those 12 potential points loomed large in the final three minutes of the first half, after OSU seemed poised to take no worse than a 16-0 lead into halftime.

Clemson drove to the OSU 45 on the ensuing possession and faced third-and-5. Shaun Wade came on a cornerback blitz and took Clemson quarterback Lawrence down for an 8-yard loss, seemingly forcing a punt. As Lawrence remained on the ground in pain, the Buckeye defenders began to leave the field.

However, officials reviewed the play and determined Wade had committed a targeting penalty for leading with the crown of his helmet. He was ejected, the 15-yard penalty gave the Tigers new life, and Lawrence missed only one play.

A pass interference flag against Wade's replacement, Amir Riep, led to Travis Etienne's 8-ayrd touchdown run for Clemson's first score.

Ohio State went three-and-out, Lawrence ran for a 67-yard touchdown five plays later, and the halftime lead turned out to be only 16-14.

Ohio State entered the playoff on a battle-tested run, defeating nationally ranked Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. The Buckeyes began the season with modest expectations, seen by many as poised to take a step back with a first-year head coach, a first-year starting quarterback new to the program and a defense coming off of one of the program's worst performances in decades.

Instead, Ohio State rolled through the majority of its schedule behind an offense with incendiary balance and an unrelenting defense. By October, the narrative shifted only to whether the Buckeyes could sustain that dominance and force itself back into the top tier of college football programs along with Clemson and Alabama.

They came close, but fell a few minutes and perhaps one route short.