GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona desert gets cold at night, but there is nothing as frigid as the frozen black heart of the SEC replay officials.
Three times in Saturday night’s Fiesta Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State the Buckeyes had their football fate in the hands of the SEC replay officials who were assigned to work the College Football Playoff semifinal and three times the icy phalanges of judgment found in favor of the Clemson Tigers.
Leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields dropped in a soft pass on a quick wheel route to running back JK Dobbins, who made a diving catch for a 5-yard touchdown score to make it 16-0. The play was reviewed and Dobbins was correctly judged to have failed to maintain control of the ball as he hit the ground. The Buckeyes ended up kicking a field goal to make it 13-0 instead.
Later in the second quarter, OSU cornerback Shaun Wade sacked Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on third-and-5, forcing a punt. The replay officials then buzzed the referees on the field to let them know they wanted to review the play. Upon further review, they determined Wade was guilty of targeting on the play even though the officials on the field saw nothing to merit a penalty.
Instead of the Buckeyes getting the ball back, Clemson retained the football and received new life at the Ohio State 30-yard line. Five plays later running back Travis Etienne scored from eight yards out to make it 16-7.
The third — and easily most egregious and the most costly intervention from the replay officials came late in the third quarter when Lawrence completed a pass to receiver Justyn Ross who was taking a third step as OSU cornerback Jeff Okudah knocked the ball out of his hands and safety Jordan Fuller picked it up and took it into the end zone from 30 or so yards out.
Replay officials overturned the call, calling it an incompletion.
Somehow, Ohio State would have been able to overcome all of this if they had simply scored in the red zone when they had an opportunity.
Three times the Buckeyes made it inside the Clemson 20-yard line and three times Ohio State left with field goals. Those nine points would have looked much better as 17 points in OSU’s 6-point loss.
And despite those struggles in the red zone, Ohio State still took a 23-21 loss in the fourth quarter when on fourth-and-1 from the Clemson 23-yard line, Buckeye head coach Ryan Day dialed up a play-action pass and Fields found receiver Chris Olave in the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Then, with 3:07 remaining in the game, Clemson got their final opportunity — and it took them all of six plays to go 89 yards for a touchdown, leaving the Buckeyes just 1:49 to work with.
Fields completed three passes to Dobbins and another to KJ Hill to get the ball down to the Clemson 31 in short order.
After a pair of Fields rushes, he dropped back on second-and-7 from the Clemson 23-yard line and fired into the end zone where the pass was intercepted by Clemson safety Nolan Turner, ending Ohio State’s hopes.
On the play, Olave thought Fields was breaking into a scramble drill, so he cut off his route, but Fields was simply stepping up into the pocket and there was only one person waiting for the pass and it was Turner.
Lost in the almosts and nearlies, was the fact that JK Dobbins was once again tremendous, rushing for 174 yards on just 18 carries, including rushes of 68 and 64 yards. Dobbins had to leave the game due to a foot injury, but returned in the second half to give the Buckeyes a boost.
During the game he also broke Eddie George’s single-season OSU rushing mark and finished his 2019 season with 2,003 yards rushing. After the game he did not have any confirmation about his upcoming NFL decision.
Justin Fields completed 30-of-46 passes for 320 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked four times.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 259 yards on 18-of-33 passing with two touchdowns. He also rushed for 107 yards on 13 attempts, scoring on a 67-yard rush to give the Tigers some necessary momentum.
Up next for Clemson is a matchup with No. 1-seed LSU in the College Football Playoffs Championship Game.
Up next for Ohio State will be some painful days and nights wondering “what if…”