For 60 minutes, the Ohio State Buckeyes went toe-to-toe with defending national champion Clemson.
At times in the first half, they looked like they were on the verge of blowing the Tigers right out of the building and earning a spot in the national championship game against LSU.
But the Buckeyes, who had been so clean, so precise, and so mistake-free for most of the season, suddenly started making crucial errors.
It started innocuously enough with a series of small, but crucial red zone failures.
The Bucks took the opening kickoff and marched right down the field, going from their own 25 to the Clemson 5 in just six plays. But the drive stalled and OSU settled for a field goal.
On Clemson’s opening possession, Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence very clearly didn’t see OSU linebacker Tuf Borland sitting in coverage. Borland stepped in front of a pass, got his hands on it, but couldn’t bring it in. If he had, there was nothing but green grass ahead of him.
The Buckeyes scored on a 68-yard touchdown run by J.K. Dobbins to make it 10-0, and then the junior running back ripped off another 64-yarder down to the Clemson 8. Only a desperate dive by a Clemson defender was enough to knock him off balance.
Three plays later, Dobbins was initially ruled to have scored a touchdown on an 8-yard pass, but the play was overturned on review and the Buckeyes settled for another field goal.
After a Clemson three-and-out, OSU once again seemed to be on the verge of driving in a dagger. They went on a methodical 14-play, 70-yard drive. On 2nd-and-15 from the Clemson 16, Fields dumped off a screen pass for Dobbins, who had a caravan of blockers in front of him. But he couldn’t hang on. Yet again, they settled for three instead of six.
Three first-half red zone trips, zero touchdowns.
OSU still seemed to be in control after Clemson took over. On a 3rd-and-5 play, cornerback Shaun Wade came on a blitz and drilled Lawrence, who crumpled to the turf. For a moment it looked like the Buckeyes would get the ball back with a 16-0 lead and 4:47 left in the first half.
But the replay official buzzed the referees on the field to instigate a replay review for targeting. Lawrence had ducked as Wade approached, and Wade appeared to dip his head just enough that the crown of his helmet hit Lawrence.
That not only gave the Tigers a first down at the OSU 30, but also meant that Wade was ejected, leaving them without a key defender for the final 35 minutes.
“We had all of the momentum. Then when we got the sack, and then the penalty was called on Shaun. The momentum swung right there,” Day said.
It didn’t take long for Clemson to start building that momentum. They immediately threw at sophomore cornerback Amir Riep, who had replaced Wade, drawing a pass interference call that pushed the ball to the OSU 16. Two plays later, running back Travis Etienne appeared to be stopped for a loss, but broke a couple tackles to scored and cut the lead to 16-7.
OSU failed to convert a 3rd-and-1 play on the ensuing drive, and Clemson cashed in again. First, Lawrence connected with Justyn Ross for a 16-yard gain on 3rd-and-10.
Two plays later, Lawrence took a simple quarterback draw, juked safety Josh Proctor who slipped on the wet turf, and ran 67 yards to cut it to 16-14.
Less than four minutes after they appeared to be getting the ball back with a 16-point lead, it was now down to just two.
The teams traded punts to start the third quarter, and the Buckeye defense forced another from the Clemson 15.
Ryan Day called for a block and both Chris Olave and Cameron Brown came in clean and seemed certain to make the play. But the ball somehow slipped between their hands. That meant that when Brown crashed into Clemson punter Will Speiers, it was a 15-yard penalty that gave the Tigers a first down.
“We were trying to be aggressive,” Day said after the game. “We thought we could get after the punt, and we’ve done a good job of staying off the punter and being aggressive.”
Once again, the Tigers took advantage. Lawrence found Etienne for a 53-yard touchdown to give Clemson its first lead of the night at 21-16. Again, the Buckeyes got hands on Etienne, but couldn’t bring him down.
OSU appeared to have taken the lead back when Ross grabbed a pass and took several steps before Jeff Okudah stripped the ball out. Senior safety Jordan Fuller was there to scoop the ball up and run it back for an apparent touchdown. But the replay official ruled that the pass was incomplete, wiping the touchdown off the board.
“During the play, I just saw the receiver catch the ball the ball, and then I saw the ball on the ground, there was no whistle, so I picked it up and tried to do something with it,” Fuller said.
After the game, referee Ken Williamson told a pool reporter that Ross was juggling the ball and never had control.
“After the video, instant replay in the stadium as well as back at the video center, they both looked at it slow and fast and they determined when he moved, the ball was becoming loose in his hands and he did not complete the process of the catch,” Williamson said.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 29, 2019
“I know there were some plays that were called on the field and then overturned, and when they overturn it, there has to be indisputable evidence. If that’s what they deemed it was, it’s going to be something we’ll have to take a look at,” Day said.
The Bucks would overcome that to put together a 13-play, 84-yard drive to take the lead back, 23-21. Even here there was a missed opportunity. Day chose to kick the PAT instead of attempting a 2-point conversion that would have given them a 3-point lead.
They had a chance to ice the game when they got the ball back, but Day opted to punt on 4th-and-4 from the Clemson 39. Would he have gambled and gone for it if they were up 3 and a Clemson field goal would have only tied it instead of won the game?
Yet again, the Tigers quickly took advantage. Just four plays later, they had gone 94 yards to take a 29-23 lead.
OSU had one final chance. They started their final drive at their own 25 with 1:49 left on the clock and two timeouts.
Seven plays later, they were down to the Clemson 23 with 0:43 left on the clock. But when Fields tried to connect with Olave in the end zone, there was a miscommunication. Olave broke left, Fields threw right, and Clemson safety Nolan Turner was the only player there to catch it. That interception ended the game, and the Buckeyes’ season.
After the game, Olave said he broke off his route because he thought Fields was scrambling.
“I was supposed to run a post, but I thought he scrambled out of the pocket so I turned around to try and get open for him,” Olave said. “But he ended up throwing the ball to the post. It was my mistake.”
It was one Buckeye mistake in a game filled with them.
“That one play does not define the game,” said Fields. “Of course it was a big play, but he did not lose us the game.”
It was a game between two nearly evenly-matched teams decided by a matter of inches, over and over again.
If the Clemson defender had been just a few inches further behind and not been able to grab Dobbins’ ankle on the 64-yard run.
If the first throw to Dobbins was just a couple inches closer.
If Dobbins hadn’t turned his head a fraction of a second too early to look upfield on the second throw.
If Shaun Wade’s face was just looking a couple inches higher.
If Olave and Brown had been over by just a few inches and tipped the punt instead of missing it.
If the replay official had felt Ross the ball moved by a few inches less.
If, if, if.
On day filled with what-ifs, there is only one thing certain: The Buckeyes have a long offseason ahead to ponder just how close they came to winning that game.