GLENDALE, Ariz. – If you are an Ohio State fan, there have been some tough losses over the years.
It just depends how far you want to go back.
The 1969 loss at Michigan when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 and headed for a second straight national title. The shocking 23-10 loss to UCLA in the 1976 Rose Bowl, costing them another title. The 17-16 loss to USC in the 1980 Rose Bowl. Ditto for another national title. The 1986, ’95 and ’86 losses to Michigan. The ’98 and 2015 losses to Michigan State, both when the Buckeyes were No. 1. The 2005 home loss to Texas, a game Ohio State had dominated, enabling the Longhorns to go on and win a national championship.
Is that one paragraph enough pain for you?
But what happened Saturday night at State Farm Stadium against defending national champion Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal may have just topped them all.
Heart-breaking. Gut-wrenching. Soul-crushing.
Pick one. Pick them all.
This 29-23 loss was a victory the Buckeyes had in their grasp for much of the night, only to let it slip through their fingers. They were one play away. They were one play away over and over and over again, and none of them went the Buckeyes’ way. Some were overturned after replay reviews. Some were inches one way or another. Some were just plain bad luck.
When it was all said and done, Ohio State had 99 more total yards, seven more first downs, 38 more rushing yards than Clemson — and a helluva lot more regrets and what-ifs.
Make no mistake about it, this was a game the Buckeyes not only could have but should have won.
And that’s what will hurt them the most.
Instead, they finish 13-1 to conclude a season in which they won every game by at least 11 points. But what they did from September through the Big Ten championship win over Wisconsin on Dec. 7 won’t be of any consolation since this spectacular season didn’t end in a national championship.
Some were calling this one of Ohio State’s best-ever teams. It may have been just that, but this ending with a loss will erase any historic greatness this team was due.
The Buckeyes not only came up on the short end on each of about seven huge plays, but if just one of those had gone their way Saturday, they would have walked out of here with an upset win a trip to New Orleans to take on LSU for the national championship.
Instead, it will be Clemson’s trip.
The ACC Tigers, who now have won 29 in a row, will face those other SEC Tigers from the Bayou. But don’t expect many Buckeyes to be watching on Jan. 13, unless it’s simply to pull for their former teammate Joe Burrow to put the dagger in the team they let slip away.
They say football is a game of inches. Let me tell you, all those inches added up to break Ohio State’s heart in this one.
“When two great teams get together, it always comes down to a few big plays,” first-year coach Ryan Day said. “We didn’t get any of them. It was a very strange game that way. I am very, very disappointed not to win this game.”
I am quite positive Ohio State has never gained 516 yards or more in its 130 years of football — and came away a loser.
“That hurts,” Day said. “Really hurts.”
Also, there were not just one or two, but several officiating calls by the SEC crew that went Clemson’s way. And they weren’t any little, five-yard types. They all were momentum-swinging, game-determining type of calls.
J.K Dobbins had caught a diving swing pass that would have given Ohio State a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. It was ruled a touchdown and then overturned by replay, forcing the Buckeyes to kick a field goal and take four points off the board.
In the third quarter, there was a scoop-and-score that would have given the Buckeyes the lead, that was overturned by replay again, as officials ruled a Clemson incompletion instead of a catch and a fumble.
“That overturn was huge,” Day said. “Huge.”
And then there was a second-quarter targeting call on cornerback Shaun Wade on a blitz, with Ohio State leading 16-0 in the second quarter. He had sacked Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence on third down, which forced yet another Tigers’ punt. Lawrence saw him coming and ducked his head, realizing the sack was coming. That move lowered his helmet just enough to collide with Wade’s, resulting in a targeting call – not called by the officials on the field but rather after a review.
That not only eliminated Wade from the game but gave Clemson a first down and they soon scored to cut the lead to 16-7. It also swung the momentum of the game.
“That targeting call swung it,” Day said.
Day didn’t want to make a general comment on the officiating.
“It’s too close (to the end of the game) right now,” he said. “It’s too emotional to talk about right now. I’ll watch the tape on all those big calls and see what happened.”
After Lawrence ran 67 yards on a quarterback draw to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 16-14 at the half, Day had to wonder what happened.
“We had 300 yards of offense in the first half and had a 16-14 lead,” he said.
On the second series of the third quarter, Ohio State stopped Clemson again and Cameron Brown was inches from blocking a punt, but he was called for roughing the punter. One play later, Travis Etienne collected a screen pass and raced 53 yards to give the Tigers a 21-16 lead.
“That was huge,” Day said. “They were all huge.”
Ohio State had a 23-21 lead and Clemson backed up at its own 6-yard line with only 3:07 remaining. That came on a punt after Day chose not to go for it on fourth-and-four from Clemson’s 39.
“I wanted to pin them inside their 10 and I had confidence in our defense,” he said.
Three plays earlier, caught a short pass and cut to his right with nothing but open space in front of him. A touchdown there would have given Ohio State a two-score lead with less than four minutes remaining, but Clemson’s Isiah Simmons just got enough of his ankle to trip him up.
“I was gone,” Dobbins said on the sideline. “That was the ballgame.”
After the ensuing punt, all Lawrence needed was an 11-yard scramble and three completions of 73 yards – all totaling 78 seconds – to put the Tigers into the end zone and with a two-point conversion, a 29-23 lead.
The game on the line and 1:49 remaining, Fields then drove the Buckeyes 52 to Clemson’s 23 in the final seconds with four completions. On second-and-seven with 37 seconds remaining, Day wanted sophomore Chris Olave on a post pattern, which the Buckeyes had hit earlier in the fourth quarter to re-take the lead.
But Olave, the breakout star in the 62-39 win over Michigan a year ago, broke the route off to the corner, apparently thinking Fields was in scramble mode. Fields, however, had already let the pass go and Clemson safety Nolan Turner intercepted it to essentially end the game.
“Chris is very upset in the locker room right now,” Day said. “It was just a miscommunication on the route. Nobody feels worse than he does right now.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Fields said.
Fields’ final pass ended a historic breakout season. He had entered Saturday’s game with an unprecedented 40-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, something never done in NCAA history, but threw two picks on the night. Still, he gutted out a brilliant effort on a gimpy knee, passing for 320 yards on 30-of-46.
What Day, who suffered his first loss as a head coach. left behind in the locker room when he met with the media also added to his pain.
“A lot of tears, a lot of anger, a lot of thrown helmets,” he said. “They can’t believe it’s over.”
It’s not just the fact that it’s over for Ohio State. It’s just the way it ended that makes it so crushing.
Believe me, that 41-14 whipping administered by Florida in this building 13 years ago in the BCS championship game hurt Buckeye Nation much, much less than this one, simply because they lost to a better team in Urban Meyer’s Gators. They had 81 total yards that night, were outmatched and were never in it to win it. They weren’t the better team.
This time, they had 435 more yards, talent across the board, depth, motivation and all the ingredients of a better team.
However, the better team somehow, some way walked out of here a loser.
And they will have to live with that fact for a lifetime.
Jeff Snook, a 1982 Ohio State graduate, has written 13 books about college football. His columns can be read at jeffsnook.net