In moments, in results, the Buckeyes over the last two decades have come here as one team and left as another.
Seventeen years ago, official Terry Porter’s flag kept alive hopes for the first OSU national title in 34 seasons.
Thirteen years ago, the celebration of Ted Ginn Jr.'s opening kickoff return injured the Buckeyes speedster and knocked him from the game as an undefeated season spiraled away.
Three years ago, offensive insufficiency left the Buckeyes scoreless in a playoff semifinal and aware they needed to adapt to compete.
Saturday, the new Buckeyes were back. And a moment changed them again. And then another moment did the same. And another moment. And another.
Pulled back from dominating, then pushed to the edge, penalties, injuries and turnovers changed this College Football Playoff semifinal between No. 2 and Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson, two of the best teams in the country unable to find their footing on the slick grass in State Farm Stadium and in a game swayed by so much seemingly out of their control.
Clemson lost its top receiver, Tee Higgins, to a first-quarter injury, then he returned after halftime. Ohio State lost its running back who had been destroying the Clemson defense when J.K. Dobbins pulled up lame on the first play of the third quarter, unable to go on a previously injured ankle. Then he came back.
Clemson, down 16-0, came alive in the second quarter after a controversial targeting review on a sack triggered a 15-yard penalty that extended the drive and led to the ejection of slot cornerback Shaun Wade. The Tigers bucked up, attacked Wade’s replacement and scored 14 points in the final three minutes of the first half.
Ohio State was called for roughing the punter in the third quarter to extend another Clemson drive that led to the Tigers’ go-ahead touchdown. And a fumble forced by Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah and returned by safety Jordan Fuller for a touchdown was wiped out on review and called an incompletion.
Then football happened.
The breaks and the bruises laid a chaotic foundation for a fourth quarter that tested both teams. Ohio State had reached the playoff for the first time in three seasons, for the first time since a 31-0 loss to this same Clemson program in this same Fiesta Bowl, and was desperate to take a step forward.
Clemson, the defending national champion on a 28-game winning streak, represented the best of college football. After ejections, after injuries, after reviews, with a starting quarterback in a knee brace and a program in a new era under first-year coach Ryan Day, the Buckeyes took their shot.
Fourth-and-2. Receiver Chris Olave single-covered by a safety. Touchdown. Holy Cacti.
With that fourth-quarter play, the Buckeyes retook the lead and saw the change ahead. At stake, a place in the top echelon of college football. The Buckeyes had earned that spot in 2014 with the semifinal win over Alabama, then locked it up with their championship game victory over Oregon.
Now, a win over Clemson would do the same. In the five years since their title, the Buckeyes hadn’t kept pace as Clemson and Alabama won two championships each and dug a chasm between them and everyone else.
Saturday was Ohio State’s bridge.
“The last time we were here, we didn’t play well,” former Ohio State coach and current Fox Sports analyst Urban Meyer said Friday. “Sometimes perception is reality and that’s our job, that’s Ohio State’s job, to make a difference. We had a chance in ’16. We didn’t do it."
Here they could. The Olave touchdown put the Buckeyes up 2 with 11:46 to play. But Clemson, 3-0 in its history against Ohio State, featuring a sophomore quarterback with an NFL future and an undefeated past, has worked to earn this reputation over the last four years, has created its own share of moments. So a four-play, 94-yard touchdown drive to take a 29-23 lead with 1:49 to play was stunning, but not shocking.
This is what Trevor Lawrence does.
Here were the Buckeyes, Justin Fields with his balky knee and Dobbins with his aching ankle, and everything they wanted in front of them. The injuries and calls and reviews were in the past.
This was their moment.
Then Olave was on the ground in the end zone. A football thrown by Fields was in the hands of a Clemson defender. A miscommunication on a route had led to a game-ending interception. The quarterback in the knee brace put his hands on his head and walked to the sideline in disbelief, where he was met by Okudah and Chase Young, two junior stars who certainly won’t be back next season. They wouldn’t let Fields put his head down, not for a 29-23 loss like this, not when the Buckeyes took the champs into the final seconds.
But Ohio State’s moment, it will have to wait.