Friday, November 24, 2017
Colleges

Warning signs prove to be grim realities as Clemson rolls over Ohio State

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The warning signs were there, merely masked by the euphoria of Ohio State qualifying for its second College Football Playoff in three years.

Senior kicker Tyler Durbin missing two field goals against Michigan.

The offensive line allowing 20 sacks since Oct. 22, third most in Division I-A over that span, according to ESPN.

The erratic passing game in the previous two games, with quarterback J.T. Barrett throwing for 86 yards in the snow at Michigan State and 124 yards in a double-overtime triumph against the Wolverines.

The familiar, warm confines of the University of Phoenix Stadium and nearly a month of bowl prep presumably would change all that.

But Saturday night in the Fiesta Bowl against No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State faced the most talented team it had seen all season, if not two seasons, and came up lacking in nearly all phases.

The Tigers exposed OSU's woes of October and November in claiming a 31-0 victory to earn a spot in the Jan. 9 national championship game against Alabama at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

It marked Ohio State's biggest bowl defeat in school history and the first shutout in Urban Meyer's head coaching career.

OSU's ball-hawking secondary did its part, picking off Clemson's Deshaun Watson twice to run OSU's season total to 21 interceptions. But the "nine units strong" mantra that has been the Buckeyes' battle cry under Meyer came up eight short.

Meyer said one of the keys to compiling an 11-1 record and qualifying for the playoff was that it had the same five offensive linemen all season. That positive was blown up on the fourth offensive snap when left guard Michael Jordan was helped off with an apparent leg injury. His replacement, redshirt sophomore Demetrius Knox, wasn't even on the depth chart.

Jordan returned in the second half. But the offensive line lost some rhythm, even though anchored by two All-Americans — center Pat Elflein and right guard Billy Price. Protection issues limited Barrett's ability to run.

Jordan's injury might not have mattered. Clemson's massive defensive line could have overpowered the Buckeyes' front even if the freshman hadn't missed a snap. Clemson's deep and talented receiving corps made Ohio State's look like the junior varsity and it had a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist in Watson calmly at the controls.

It was a mismatch from the moment Durbin's 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right with 11:52 left in the first quarter, a try set up by a Gareon Conley interception. Durbin's 47-yarder on the next possession was wide left and Durbin found himself in a 1-for-5 slump.

Ohio State fell behind 17-0 at halftime, its largest deficit of the season, surpassing 10-0 holes at Wisconsin and against Michigan. It was the first time OSU had been shut out in the first half since a 2011 loss to Michigan State. Then on the Buckeyes' first series of the second half, running back Mike Weber lost a fumble. Yes, finding a replacement for Ezekiel Elliott is a daunting task, but Weber's first season didn't make anyone forget Zeke.

When Meyer looked at the things that went right in 2016, he also pointed to big plays made by Curtis Samuel, who had never made it through three or four games in his previous two years before suffering a bothersome injury that would limit his effectiveness. Clemson found an antidote for Samuel as well, although the Buckeyes helped by throwing sideways passes to Samuel that Clemson stuffed for losses.

Even with fiery defensive play in the second half and a bizarre field goal miss by Clemson with 9:02 left in the third quarter, the Buckeyes offense couldn't escape the relentless Tigers' pressure. Weber fumbled twice, losing one. Ohio State couldn't come up with the big play that might have provided the spark. The Clemson-Alabama betting line was set — Alabama by eight — with 12 minutes remaining.

With 16 starting spots to fill after last season, Meyer thought this playoff appearance came a year too early, just as he had in 2014. This time he proved to be right. The youngest team in major college football wasn't equipped mentally or physically to play with the likes of an experienced team like Clemson. The kids may have improved, but not as much as they did on the national championship team two years ago.

Even though the loss recalled the Buckeyes' embarrassment after the 2006 season, when they were drilled 41-14 by Meyer-coached Florida in the national title game, they should be lauded for getting this far after the mass exodus to the NFL.

In the month after the stunning comeback against Michigan, it was easy for fans to convince themselves that the problems were corrected, the warnings signs just false alarms. The reminder of the painful truth came just minutes into a New Year's Eve rout that showed the young Buckeyes just how far they have to go.

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