GLENDALE, Arizona – While Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields planted to play, he saw Chris Olave – one of his few elite receivers – heading towards the goal post, followed by the safety of Clemson Nolan Turner, and missed a move to the end zone.
But as soon as the ball left Fields's hand, Olave had retreated toward the sideline, dropping the ball into Turner's arms, which rocked it and slid to the floor, knowing full well what came with it: a second wave consecutive in the national championship game.
Clemson, who played their previous three league games, took the difficult road this time with a 29-23 win over Ohio at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night. The victory pitted defending champion Tigers in the title game on Jan. 13 in New Orleans against Louisiana's best state, a game that will do well to get close to the desert drama.
Clemson, who lost 16 points early and 2 points late, overtook the field in the closing minutes, with quarterback Trevor Lawrence giving a pass to defender Travis Etienne, who fired and ran 34 yards for the winning touchdown with 1.: 49 remaining. It was the third touchdown of the night for Etienne.
Fields's last-minute interception was the final regret for the Buckeyes, but it was far from the only one. They set in for three field goals early when Clemson could have exploded, their offensive attacks – Fields and J.K. Dobbins – were limping, and the officiating team had punched him in the stomach after another.
One cost the Buckeyes defender Shaun Wade, who was sent off for targeting, and another cost a touchdown when the return of a fourth quarter touchdown was canceled after review.
The game's content activated Wade's ejection.
With the state of Ohio firmly in control, with a 16-0 lead at the end of the second quarter, Wade circled in a blitz and took Lawrence to a bag. The play, on the third and fifth, left Lawrence needing the attention of a trainer while lying on his back – and the Tigers looked equally supine.
But while Lawrence was in attendance, the repeat officers examined the play and decided that Wade had lowered his helmet and struck Lawrence in the head. The penalty was severe: 15 yards and a first fall for Clemson and Wade kicked out of the game.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day was furious, arms outstretched toward referee Ken Williamson before he seemed to shout a curse word. Buckeyes fans supported him with a chorus of boos.
Clemson seized the opportunity, driving close to the goal line when Etienne made Lawrence's 3rd and 2 throw and dodged three Buckeyes who seemed to have scored. Etienne paved the way 8 yards for a touchdown to bring Clemson in 16-7 with 2:45 remaining in the middle.
The Buckeyes did not finish the rollout.
Clemson made three plays, the last of which ended with Dobbins twisting his left ankle, and the Tigers recovered the ball at 17 with 1:50 before the break.
Lawrence beat Justyn Ross 16 yards in the third and 10 to move the ball to 33. After an incomplete, Lawrence fired 67 yards for a touchdown in a quarterback draw. Left guard John Simpson created the hole and Lawrence passed security Josh Proctor, grabbed a block from a receiver and galloped down the sideline.
Suddenly a game that seemed to have ended at halftime was alive, with Clemson crawling between 16 and 14.
Clemson took the lead with a little more help from the Buckeyes, taking a penalty penalty to drive 99 yards – the last 53 covered by Etienne after he took a Lawrence pass, tricked two defenders and ran into the end zone.
If the Buckeyes were ruining the target, Dobbins' serious penalty and injury, they also had other regrets – starting with the three-goal deal within the 15-yard line.
Two of them came because Dobbins couldn't hold on for a few passes – one of them, which he did while placing his feet near the goal line, but swaying as he hit the ground. The other: a screen as he passed the 12-yard line with a blocking convoy ahead.
Still, Dobbins was largely responsible for the Buckeyes who attacked ahead with two long runs – a 68-yard touchdown yard and a 64-yard yard that set a field goal.
Day may be in his first year as a coach, but his call has a veteran character. He is not ashamed to keep his offense on the field on the fourth down, attacking the field when caution is needed or calling for a fake punt deep within his own territory – as he did in the Big Ten Championship game.
It was no different on Saturday night when the ball came flying early.
And as the Buckeyes drove through the field with the kickoff, leading 3-0 on Blake Haubeil's 21-yard goal – the fields completed passes for six different receivers – the day began to put the ball in Dobbins hands.
Dobbins was forgotten only because the Buckeyes had two other Heisman Trophy finalists – Fields and Chase Young. But a runner's bowling ball back with the speed of a sprinter has been a centerpiece of Buckeyes's attack, chasing a brutal offensive line.