NEW ORLEANS — Going into College Football Playoff, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said he didn't think Ohio State deserved to be in the title tournament because they'd played too few games. On the field in New Orleans, the Buckeyes proved him wrong.
Led by junior quarterback Justin Fields, who had a transcendent night throwing for a school and Sugar Bowl record 6 touchdowns along with 385 yards passing, the Buckeyes mauled Clemson 49-28 to prove to Swinney and the rest of the college football world's doubters they have the tools to win the national championship.
Ohio State will now face Alabama on Monday, January 11 for a chance to win their second title of the playoff era, their first coming in the inaugural year of the system six years ago.
In the two weeks leading to the game, Swinney had even gone so far as to rank Ohio State 11th on his final coach's poll ballot, and doubled down on his decision when questioned by reporters. It clearly served as motivation for Ohio State.
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Things got off to a good start for the Tigers, as quarterback Trevor Lawrence capped off an 8 play, 82 yard opening drive with a 2-yard run for a touchdown.
About four minutes later Ohio State would answer when running back Trey Sermon ran it in essentially untouched from 32 yards out for the equalizer.
Clemson's Travis Etienne, the all-time leader in points scored in ACC history, would then give the Tigers a 14-7 advantage scampering in from three yards out.
Then things starting going wrong for Clemson. Really wrong.
Fields would find tight end Luke Farrell who posted up in the end zone over a Clemson defender to tie the game back up at 14 with 1:36 in the 1st quarter.
The Tigers struggled to adjust to a balanced load of running and passing along with abrupt changes of tempo from Ohio State, often looking out of sorts and out of position on many plays. At times players were struggling just to get into position before the ball was snapped.
Fields and the Buckeyes would take advantage of that confusion when Fields connected with the other tight end, Jeremy Ruckert, for a 17-yard score at 10:35 in the second quarter.
At 6:05 in the 2nd quarter and with a chance to get Ohio State to punt on a third down run, Clemson linebacker James Skalski lowered his head and hit Fields in the right side of his ribs as Field attempted to get to the marker for a first down. Fields was shaken up, lying on the ground in pain, but after about three minutes he made his way back to the sideline.
Officials reviewed the play and ejected Skalski for targeting, much as he was thrown out of last year's national title game against LSU for the same infraction. That gave Ohio State a first down, and after sitting out one play, Fields returned to throw a 9 yard touchdown in the corner of the endzone to wide receiver Chris Olave.
Fields would continue to play through pain for the rest of the game, but his performance didn't show it.
Just before the end of the half, he'd throw a 12-yard strike to Ruckert to cap a 28-0 run that put OSU up 35-14 at the half. Clemson allowed 394 yards of total offense in that half, the most allowed by the Tigers under Swinney.
After the half, Clemson made some adjustments. Mike Jones Jr. picked off Fields who was throwing in the endzone for another potential score. The Tigers would march down the field 80 yards on a drive that ended when Lawrence found Cornell Powell who stretched his arm across the goal line right before he went out of bounds to help cut the lead to 35-21.
But that sign of hope for the Tigers would only last a few more minutes, thanks to two haymakers from Fields that proved to be the knockout blows: a 56-yard bomb to Olave with 4:55 left in the 3rd and a 45 yard strike to Jameson Williams that put Ohio State up by 28 early in the 4th quarter.
Clemson would add another TD with a 26-yard pass from Lawrence to Powell, but it was too late by then. Lawrence finished with 400 yards passing, 2 TDs, and an interception.
Clemson ends the season 10-2 on the year and as ACC Champions. This was likely the final college game for Lawrence, who's projected to be the number one pick in the NFL Draft this spring.
Ohio State's game against the Crimson Tide takes place in Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, the site of the Orange Bowl.