Clemson Advances to CFP National Championship for Second Straight Year with 29-23 Comeback Win Over Ohio State

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and quarterback Trevor Lawrence celebrate after Clemson defeated Ohio State 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

A quirky Fiesta Bowl national semifinal went to Clemson on Saturday night yet will carry on into a loud future with Trevor Lawrence’s reputation booming and Ohio State people forever fuming, having suffered a litany of excruciations.

The 29-23 finish at State Farm Stadium pushed Clemson into its fourth College Football Playoff national championship game in five years, opposite LSU this time, and came about because Lawrence and chums took the ball with 3:07 left and a scary amount of terrain up ahead, then traveled those 94 yards with aplomb.

It took them four plays. It took them 78 seconds. It went boom, boom, boom and boom. Lawrence threw 11 yards to the right to Justyn Ross. Lawrence backed briefly into the pocket and then roamed an open prairie to his right for 11 more. Lawrence threw deep down the middle to Amari Rodgers for 38 yards to the 34-yard line.

Then, for the kind of touchdown that decorates a story, the sophomore quarterback and defending national champion pretended to tuck in the ball to run, something he had done 16 times for 107 sorely needed yards, then looked up and tossed one. It went a short way to monster running back Travis Etienne, who blasted the last 25 yards or so for another touchdown for a dynasty’s gathering collection of moments.

Ohio State (13-1) wound up as both great and sad, and perhaps forever cringing. The Buckeyes led 16-0 early on and led 23-21 after a masterful 84-yard drive from pilot Justin Fields, whose 23-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave came on fourth and one and 11:46 from the end.

They then forced a punt and went another 50 yards to kill large chunks of time. But they punted there, and Clemson (14-0) moved the now-famous 94 yards, and then the Buckeyes moved 52 yards through the gasping final seconds to both the Clemson ­23-yard line and the frayed nerve endings of 71,330.

On second down with 43 seconds left, Fields threw to the end zone. Olave and Fields had a miscommunication, the receiver breaking into the corner, the quarterback throwing down the middle. Safety Nolan Turner ran across and intercepted it, Fields’s second interception of the game but only his third across 14 games.

That would join a list of agonies and grievances sure to rev up many a conversation in Columbus and beyond through New Year’s and beyond. Thrice the Buckeyes got bad news from video reviews: on an apparent touchdown catch from star running back J.K. Dobbins in the second quarter that turned out incomplete, on a targeting call 4:47 before halftime that altered a 16-0 game, and finally, amid the third quarter, on an apparent fumble-recovery touchdown. On that last one, Lawrence pitched one out on a hapless third and 19 to Ross, who clutched the pass between his hands but never pulled it to his gut because his back had all-American cornerback Jeff Okudah draped upon it. Okudah plucked out the ball, which lay on the ground like a large piece of candy until Jordan Fuller took it and stormed 29 yards down the left sideline to the end zone.

The Ohio State semicircle around the stadium bounced madly until it groaned angrily, the latter after a review rendered the pass an incompletion. By then, the sinking feeling had become familiar.

For a yawning spell at the outset, Ohio State provided the country’s latest critique of Clemson’s schedule. It made things look like Clemson hadn’t seen anything like it while looking as if it had seen things like Clemson. It would roll through the program with the 28-game winning streak for 296 first-half yards, more than all but one of those previous 13 gained in entire games.

It would set loose Dobbins, the back with breathtaking amounts of will and skill who quickly electrified the stat sheet to reach 141 rushing yards on six carries. ­Sixty-eight of that came on a touchdown midway through the first quarter on which Dobbins blasted past end Xavier Thomas at the line, subjected safety K’Von Wallace to an unwanted 360 and outran much of the state of South Carolina. Another 64 came on a run up the right that ended eight yards from the end zone only because safety Tanner Muse barely tripped Dobbins from behind.

Still, the Buckeyes devotees had to wonder about an undercurrent beneath the dominance: three stalls for three field goals from three aching distances: 21, 23 and 33. The middle one came after Dobbins apparently caught a five-yard touchdown pass and then, after review, apparently did not.

Ohio State led 16-0 when many might have dreamed it 28-0.

Meanwhile, Clemson looked gummed up and off kilter, operating in spaces smaller and more crowded than accustomed. Its mighty receivers found sticky company. It kept tripping up on third and not so long.

On a third and four from the Ohio State 45-yard line, Lawrence had J.C. Chalk open beyond the marker, but defensive end Tyreke Smith gamely batted down the ball. On third and two from the Ohio State 45-yard line, Lawrence faked and dropped back and wound up amid the menacing inconvenience of defensive tackle Robert Landers and then defensive end Tyler Friday. On third and two from the Clemson ­33-yard line, linebacker Pete Werner crashed in to limit Etienne to one yard.

But on third and five from the Ohio State 45-yard line just 4:47 to halftime, the ground began shifting. Lawrence waited to throw, and cornerback Shaun Wade waited to blitz, and Wade made a searing line toward Lawrence, ramming into him and getting help from his mates as the giant quarterback teetered, dropped and stayed prone briefly.

It wrecked the drive and reintroduced the punter.

But as the witnesses tried to gauge Lawrence’s condition, the officials in the booth tried to assess the play. They ruled targeting against Wade, who looked gutted, said farewell to his mates and departed with his automatic disqualification. It resuscitated Clemson and altered the game.

Soon, the Tigers got 15 yards on an interference penalty and the final eight when Etienne ventured right, untangled himself from Fuller and romped past Friday. The score stood 16-7 and looked unusually different from 16-0.

Ohio State stalled, and Lawrence backed up on second and 10, bolted through a gap created by all-American guard John Simpson, put a swell juke on safety Josh Proctor, reached the left sideline and scored from 67 yards. That made it 16-14, and that made things hairy.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Chuck Culpepper and Jacob Bogage