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‘What ifs’ doom Ohio State in CFP semifinal loss to Clemson

The Ohio State Buckeyes were hoping to have quite a fiesta Saturday night in Scottsdale, Arizona. Instead, it turned into disappointment, despair, and plenty of ‘what ifs’. Prior to the Fiesta Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinals, the 2019 version of the scarlet and gray didn’t know what losing felt like. Ohio State had a perfect 13-0 record and had their eyes set on a national title, one that many thought the Buckeyes had a solid chance of winning for the first time since the Playoff debuted in 2014. That along with the fact that this was one of the most talented teams to walk through the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in quite some time is seemingly what makes the loss hurt even more.

Saturday night’s game between the Buckeyes and Clemson was a game of runs. Unfortunately for the scarlet and gray, Clemson got the last score, giving them the lead for good and advancing them to the national championship yet again. The Buckeyes might have lost, but they had plenty of chances to beat the Tigers, ones that they will likely look back on, regret, and continue to watch on film as they try and get over this loss to Clemson, a win that they seemingly had in their hands early on before it slowly slipped away.

Let’s take a look at all the ‘what ifs’, ones that include both misfortunes and bad, regrettable plays by the Buckeyes and wrong calls by the referees:

Red-zone struggles

Midway through the second quarter, Ohio State took a 16-0 lead in a game that they were dominating, both physically and on the scoreboard. Yet, it still didn’t seem like enough. Even with those 16 points, the Buckeyes were forced to kick three field goals on their first three trips to the red zone. Justin Fields and company made their way inside the Tigers’ 15-yard line three separate times in the first 23 minutes of the game yet could only notch nine points in those possessions.

Not that we can blame the referees too much for this one, but on the first possession of the game, J.K. Dobbins was destined to find the end zone on a short, four-yard run, but the refs blew the whistle to review the previous play, one that was reversed after Garrett Wilson made an incredible, highlight reel-type catch. It’s tough to say if the running back would have actually scored, but the hole opened up and it looked as though he would have. Just three plays later, Ohio State was forced to settle for a field goal.

Prior to Saturday night, the Buckeyes had previously scored a touchdown on 59-of-72 opportunities in the red zone (81.9%), notching a field goal on eight other attempts. It was one of the best efficiencies in the country. Yet, against Clemson, that went 0pher. Even though they controlled the game early on, leaving points on the board early on cost them in the end.

Here’s what some of the Buckeyes said about the missed opportunities early on, via Eleven Warriors’ Colin Hass-Hill:

“That whole game was such a whirlwind, I don’t even really know what happened in the first quarter, first half, when we weren’t putting it in the end zone,” Josh Myers said. “I honest to God don’t. I said it earlier: when you play a quality opponent like that in a game like this, you can’t do that or you lose. The margin for error is so small.”

“We got down in the red zone a bunch,” Wyatt Davis said. “We just couldn’t convert at times.”

“We knew the field goals weren’t enough,” J.K. Dobbins said.

“One of the plans to win that we live by is to score in the red zone,” Austin Mack said. “We can’t win championships with field goals.”

Targeting penalty and ejection

Holding a 16-0 lead with just under five minutes remaining in the first half, the Silver Bullets were set to come off the field after sacking Trevor Lawrence for a 10-yard loss on third-and-5. Or, that’s what we all thought.

Following a review, it was determined that Shaun Wade would be penalized for targetting. It was not only a 15-yard personal foul that would give Clemson an automatic first down but would also force the cornerback to be ejected, leaving the Buckeyes without one of their best defensive backs for the remainder of the game.

By the letter of the rule, Wade lowered his helmet, hitting Lawrence directly in the helmet, which is targeting. The problem is that the quarterback began to lean down. If the 6-foot-6 gunslinger stood tall, Wade likely would have hit his chest. Even if it was targeting, what exactly was he supposed to do? Also, shouldn’t there be different levels of the penalty? Should a play like this really lead to an ejection? Bias or not, it was a game-changer, one that shouldn’t have even taken place.

The top hit is targeting. The bottom hit is tackle football. #OSUvsCLEM pic.twitter.com/mDY90tfsNZ

— Tony Clements (@TonyClementsTC) December 29, 2019

From @ESPNStatsInfo: Before the targeting call against #Buckeyes Shaun Wade, #Clemson had no points and averaged 4.3 yards per play. After the call, Clemson had 29 points and averaged 8.4 yards per play.

— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) December 29, 2019

Even if Amir Riep did well in Ward’s place, the momentum shift was all Clemson needed.

Roughing the punter

The difference between roughing the punter (kicker) and running into the punter (kicker) is up to the officials the majority of the time. That said, the difference is quite a big one. Roughing is a 15-yard personal foul; running into is just a five-yard penalty.

After Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman pinned Clemson inside the one-yard line following a fantastic punt, the Buckeyes were set to get the ball back and really good field position, with the Tigers forced to punt after only reaching their own 15-yard line following a five-play drive. But, on the punt, backup cornerback Cameron Brown ran into the punter, a penalty that was ruled a personal foul. Two plays later, Clemson scored a touchdown, capping a seven-play, 99-yard drive.

So, a few things:

  • Love the aggressiveness, but why go for the block when you’re set to get some very good field position?
  • It really should have only been running into the punter, which would have still made it fourth-and-1 at Clemson’s own 21-yard line.
  • The referees, again, man.

Fumble return for a touchdown…or not?

With 4:53 remaining in the third quarter, Ohio State trailed, 21-16. They needed a momentum-changing play. It came when Jeff Okudah (CB1) forced a fumble, or so we thought. After Justyn Ross caught a pass from Lawrence, took four steps, and even tried to make a move upfield, Okudah knocked the ball out of his hands, a fumble that was picked up by safety Jordan Fuller and returned 29 yards for a touchdown, or as we like to call a scoop-and-score. It presumably giving the Buckeyes the lead.

This was originally called a catch and fumble return TD, but was overturned as an incomplete pass. #CFBPlayoff pic.twitter.com/3RxiGYTvCv

— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 29, 2019

Given that it was a touchdown, the play was automatically reviewed. Replays seemed to make it obvious that the call on the field was correct and Ohio State would be rewarded a touchdown in a game-changing play that they badly needed. Or so we thought.

The referees had other ideas.

“We had a lot of good looks on it,” Fiesta Bowl referee Ken Williamson said of the play following the game after the crew overruled the initial call. “We put on fast motion and slow motion. The player did not complete the process of the catch, so, therefore, the pass was incomplete.

“After the video, instant replay in the stadium as well as back at the video center, they both looked at it slowly 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,”

Instead of the Buckeyes taking the lead on a much-needed touchdown, Clemson proceeded to punt on the next play. Ohio State threw an interception just three plays later.

“During the play, I just saw the receiver catch the ball and I saw the ball on the ground,” Fuller said. “There was no whistle, so I picked it up and tried to do something with it.”

“I’m not paid to be a ref, but it looked like he caught it to me,” Fuller said. “I’m not paid to do that. I’m not even paid to play football.”

The scarlet and gray weren’t happy, for obvious reasons. That includes athletic director Gene Smith, who voiced his displeasure following the game.

Just got a text from Ohio State AD Gene Smith: “Terry McAulay is 100-percent correct!!! Unreal!!” He added: “Feel free to share how pissed I am.” https://t.co/mVcsabPYFf

— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 29, 2019

Other Buckeyes also didn’t hold back, following in the footsteps of Smith after the game and rightfully so.

“It was very frustrating,” Davis said. “You hate to see it, but you’ve got to accept it and just move on.”

“One thing we always preach is just to worry about what we can control and not worry about what we can’t,” Myers said. “And that’s one of those things where all we can do is play the game and let everybody else worry about that stuff.”

“There was a lot of calls that were not good,” Dobbins said. “But that’s not my call. We should’ve played good enough to not depend on calls like that.”

“I’m so proud of the way our team responded like that,” Ryan Day said. “It didn’t get us down. We kept fighting. We kept swinging all the way to the end. I couldn’t be prouder of the way we responded because that was hard to swallow.”

To make matters even worse, referees past and present have since stated that the play should have never been reversed and Ohio State shouldn’t have been awarded the scoop-and-score.

This is a great angle. There is absolutely no way replay should have reversed. “Indisputable video evidence” is simply not there. https://t.co/q77FD1IYJ7

— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) December 29, 2019

“I haven’t talked to anybody who thought it was an incomplete pass,” said Big Ten officiating supervisor Bill Carollo, who has more than 30 years of officiating experience. “To reverse it, it has to be really obvious.”

A little too late now.

Go for it on fourth down?

Hindsight is obviously 20/20, but what if Day decided to go for a two-point conversation instead of an extra point after Ohio State scored a touchdown to take a then-one-point lead with 11:46 left in the game. Instead of taking a two-point lead, they could have had a three-point lead.

I meant this because the Buckeyes ended up getting the ball back at their own 11-yard line with 9:54 remaining in the fourth quarter. They were able to bleed the clock all the way down to 3:07, with a fourth down at Clemson’s 39-yard line looming. If Ohio State held a three-point lead instead of a two-point lead, would Day have gone for it on fourth down, putting the game in his offense’s hands rather than Lawrence’s? If the Buckeyes would have gained a first down, the game would have essentially been over and Ohio State would be in the national championship game. Instead, the scarlet and gray punted and gave the ball back to Lawrence and the Tigers. Clemson capped off a 94-yard drive and scored the game-winning touchdown just over a minute later.

The interception that clinched the loss

On second-and-7, Ohio State had the ball at Clemson’s 23-yard line and was driving with plenty of momentum. Although they trailed, 29-23, with 43 seconds remaining, Buckeye Nation began to believe that Fields and company were about to score a touchdown and win the game.

But, on a play that wide receiver Chris Olave thought his quarterback was beginning to scramble, Fields threw an interception, essentially ending the game.

INTERCEPTED! What a finish! #CFBPlayoff pic.twitter.com/7u8sU3d2IA

— ESPN (@espn) December 29, 2019

As seen during the play, Olave fell in the end zone, giving the Tigers and an easy interception. It was because the wideout thought his quarterback was beginning to scramble out of the pocket, therefore making it so that Olave should change his post route a bit. Meanwhile, Fields saw that his receiver was open as he continued to run from left to right in the end zone.

“It was one-on-one with me on the safety, and I was supposed to run the post,” Olave said. “But when I looked back, I thought he scrambled, so I tried to work the second part of my route. He ended up throwing it, and that’s how the game ended.

“It’s terrible. Worst feeling in the world. We definitely had a lot of opportunities, but I put that game on me to make that play at the end,” Olave said.

While it truly is awesome that Olave put the blame on himself, showing and proving his maturity, especially considering he is only a sophomore, it still stinks that it even happened in the first place. The sophomore proved that he can be one of the best wide receivers in the country. He just had a minor miscommunication in the biggest play of the season.

Looking at the positive side, Fields and Olave will both learn from this and be even better in 2020.

The Fiesta Bowl was a game that featured two of the top three teams in the country. Given the amount of talent on both rosters, every play matters. While the Buckeyes still could have won even with their own and the referees’ mistakes, it doesn’t make it any easier.

“Those game-altering plays that happen in a game, you need those things to go beat a team like Clemson where you’re playing in a semifinal game,” Day said. “You need those one or two plays. Then to miss a couple of them, that hurts you.

“I just know when two great teams get together, it comes down to a few plays, and it did again tonight.”

Ohio State vs. Clemson drew 21.2 million viewers, the most-watched College Football Playoff Semifinal not played on New Year’s Day (eight games). Unfortunately, it seems as though the referees weren’t part of that number throughout the entirety of the game. Now, Buckeye Nation must wait until next season to see if Ohio State can win the national championship.

In all of this, the Buckeyes didn’t need to have all of these things to go their way. They just needed some, some of those 26 points. That’s what makes things even tougher when looking back on the Fiesta Bowl. Then again, things happen. What’s done is done. Onto the next one, hopefully, one that ends with a better outcome.

This content was originally published here.