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Ohio State may have earned its way into Dabo Swinney’s top 10 after this performance. Beat Alabama, and it could be in his top five.
The Clemson coach, who infamously ranked the Buckeyes 11th on his final Amway Coaches Poll ballot that is made public, and said they didn’t belong in the College Football Playoff because they played just six games, had egg all over his face Friday night.
He certainly seemed to give added motivation to an already driven team, providing it with extra ammunition after Clemson’s dramatic victory on the same stage a year ago.
The result was a stunning upset, a 49-28 Ohio State victory in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans that sends the third-seeded Buckeyes to the national championship game. On Jan. 11 in Miami, they will meet No. 1 Alabama, a 31-14 winner over No. 4 Notre Dame. It will be their first trip to the final since winning it all in the inaugural playoff in 2015.
“I just think everybody doubting us just pushed us a little more,” quarterback Justin Fields said. “I prepared for this game like I’ve never prepared for a game before.”
Swinney said he didn’t have any regrets about the ranking, playing down its significance.
“Only thing I regret is obviously not doing a good enough job getting my team ready,” he said.
For Ohio State, this was redemption.
Redemption for Fields, after his interception ended the Buckeyes’ hopes in the final seconds of last year’s playoff semifinal.
Redemption for Chris Olave, who cut off his route on the play.
Redemption for Ohio State and its fans, who felt they were robbed last year by a few questionable calls, and beat Clemson after two previous defeats to the Tigers in the playoff.
Nearly a year to the day of the Buckeyes’ crushing loss to Clemson, after a year spent waiting and hoping for a rematch, they made the most of their opportunity against the same foe. They heard all about how they didn’t belong in the playoff after playing in just six games, they knew all about Swinney’s ranking, and they transferred those emotions into a thorough beatdown.
“I think that just gives us extra motivation, extra ways that we can get our guys going, get our guys pumped about this game,” center Josh Myers said.
They likely ended Trevor Lawrence’s storybook college career, turning him over twice and owning the line of scrimmage. Despite playing through severe pain in the right side of his torso and hip for the final 35:57, Fields outplayed his friend and fellow Georgia native, completing 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and an Ohio State (7-0) bowl record six touchdowns. He needed pain-killing injections to stay in the game after a helmet-first hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski, and was in obvious discomfort.
“Even throwing 10 yards, it would hurt,” Fields said. “It’s the game of football we play. I signed up for it.”
Olave, the dynamic receiver who didn’t play in the Big Ten championship game, blistered the Clemson secondary for six catches, 132 yards receiving and two touchdowns. With co-starter Master Teague unable to play for an unspecified reason, running back Trey Sermon followed up his Big Ten championship record-setting performance by producing 258 all-purpose yards, running through, off and around defenders like a bowling ball.
The supposedly suspect Buckeyes defense, such a question mark entering the game, limited Clemson (10-2) to 48 rushing yards and held the Tigers to a season-low 28 points. Ohio State contained Lawrence, handing him just his second loss in 36 college starts.
“Ohio State was awesome,” Swinney said.
Just like in last year’s matchup, a targeting call played a big role in this meeting. Last year, it was Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade getting ejected. This year it was Skalski, whose big hit leading with his helmet to Fields’ right side led to his ejection and kept alive an Ohio State drive that would result in a touchdown and a 28-14 lead late in the first half.
Clemson never got closer, hardly threatening after halftime. When the edge was trimmed to 35-21, Fields responded with his fifth touchdown pass, a perfectly placed 56-yard bomb to Olave, the kind of answer Ohio State had all evening whenever Clemson made a big play. Fields hit on another big play two drives later, finding Jameson Williams on a 45-yard strike.
“My body is pretty beat up right now, but I’m happy,” Fields said. “My teammates are happy. This is a feeling like no other. I know my body is going to be hurting tomorrow morning, but it’s worth it for this win and for my teammates.
“That’s what I was thinking, about all the sacrifices that we go through as a team, and that’s what got me through the whole game.”