NEW ORLEANS — Justin Fields threw six touchdown passes to outshine Trevor Lawrence and No. 3 Ohio State avenged last season’s painful College Football Playoff loss to Clemson with a 49-28 victory in the Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal Friday night.
The Buckeyes (7-0) head to the College Football Playoff title game for the first time since the inaugural playoff to face No. 1 Alabama on Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Ohio State beat the Crimson Tide in the semifinals on the way to the 2014 national championship.
“Now we’ve got an opportunity to win the whole thing, and then you’ve got an opportunity to write one of the best stories in college football history,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
In a matchup of quarterback prodigies from Georgia, Fields might have given the Jacksonville Jaguars something to think about for their first pick in the NFL draft next year. Lawrence is the presumptive No. 1 pick, but Fields outplayed him on this night, going 22-for-28 for 385 yards. He set a Sugar Bowl record for touchdown passes and did it playing more than half the game after taking a vicious shot to his right side that forced him to miss a play and spend time in the medical tent.
Lawrence was 33-for-48 for 400 yards and three total touchdowns in what is expected to be the junior’s final college game. His final pass was intercepted, but Clemson (10-2) went 34-2 in his starts and won a national title when he was a freshman.
The third meeting between Clemson and Ohio State in the playoff, and fourth bowl matchup since the 2013 season, was a game the Buckeyes had been pointing toward since a 29-23 loss to the Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl last year.
That score was everywhere the Buckeyes turned in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus this year.
A chance for revenge was nearly derailed when the Big Ten canceled fall football in August because of the coronavirus pandemic. An abbreviated Big Ten season caused more headaches, with the Buckeyes having three games canceled because of virus issues, including their own outbreak.
The playoff committee still liked Ohio State enough to put the Buckeyes in the final four despite much griping from various parts of the country, including Clemson.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney complained that Ohio State’s six-game schedule was too short to warrant a playoff spot and might even give the Buckeyes an unfair advantage. Yes, he said, the Buckeyes were good enough to beat the Tigers, but he placed Ohio State 11th on his coaches poll ballot just the same. It was nothing personal, Swinney said, but the Buckeyes sure looked as if they took it that way, beating Clemson for the first time in five bowl meetings.
Only a few thousand fans were permitted in the Superdome because of virus restrictions. The thousand or so on the Buckeyes’ side of the field derisively chanted “Daaa-boooo! Daaa-boooo!” as the clock wound down on Clemson’s season.
Day talked all week about what a remarkable tale it would be for the Buckeyes to survive this rollercoaster of a season and still reach their goal.
“Everything we’ve been through this year, to come out and play the way we played, I don’t know what to say about this group,” Day said.
Clemson took a 7-0 lead on the opening drive and then went up 14-7 with Lawrence and Etienne running for scores.
From there it was all Buckeyes. Fields threw touchdown passes to tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert on consecutive drives to give Ohio State a 21-14 lead early in the second quarter.
Operating without offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who did not make the trip while in virus protocols, the Clemson offense couldn’t respond. The Buckeyes kept rolling behind Field, though not without a major scare.
Field scrambled on third and long and took a hard shot to the right side from Clemson linebacker James Skalski that put the Buckeyes star into a fetal position before he rolled over onto his back in obvious pain.
The play was reviewed for a targeting foul that resulted in Clemson’s top linebacker being ejected and first and goal for the Buckeyes.
Fields came out for one play and returned to immediately throw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave that made it 28-14.
“I took a big shot ... but what really kept me going was my brothers and my love for them,” Fields said. “I’d do anything for these guys.”
Fields went to the injury tent with Ohio State athletic trainers on Clemson’s next possession, which didn’t last long.
Fields was back out there on the Buckeyes’ next drive. He took another hit on a scramble and slowly got up. After each play he moved gingerly, but with Trey Sermon running hard and the Buckeyes providing good protection, Fields continued to carve up the Tigers.
He hit Ruckert for a 12-yard score with 11 seconds left in the first half.
A year after blowing 16-0 first-half lead in last year’s excruciating semifinal loss to Clemson, the Buckeyes handed the Tigers their largest halftime deficit (21) since the 2012 Orange Bowl against West Virginia (29 points).
The second half started with Clemson looking like it might have another comeback in it. Fields was intercepted in the Tigers’ end zone, and Lawrence came back with an 80-yard touchdown drive to cut Clemson’s deficit to 35-21.
Nervous time for the Buckeyes? Not for long. Fields threw a perfectly placed bomb to Olave for a 56-yard touchdown pass that made it 42-21 with 4:55 left in the third quarter.
And if there was any doubt, Fields threw a touchdown pass to Jameson Williams that officially went into the books as a 46-yarder, but traveled over 50 in the air.
Sermon followed up his school-record 331-yard-rushing Big Ten championship game with 193 on the ground and another 61 receiving.
The Buckeyes were without second-leading rusher Master Teague, starting guard Harry Miller and two defensive ends in Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison. Ohio State did not give details of their absences. All four had played in the Big Ten championship game two weeks ago.
The Buckeyes make their second appearance in the College Football Playoff national championship game. They beat Oregon to win the 2014 title.
–– By Ralph D. Russo