Justin Fields atoned for last year – and set records in doing it – and Trey Sermon continued to be the back that no one imagined was in October. The bottom line was the Buckeyes looked more than deserving of the CFP in a beatdown of Clemson in a semi-final.
Columbus, OH – No one in America doubts that Dabo Swinney is one hell of a football coach to the point where he walks almost in the same tracks as Nick Saban.
The man won national championships in 2016 and 2018 and was runner-up twice.
But maybe, just maybe, USA Today should reconsider having him among its 62 voters for its college poll.
Swinney was defiant in repeating for everyone to hear that he certainly did rank Ohio State 11th. He said the team had no business being one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff playing only six games.
He had Iowa State, Coastal Carolina and Brigham Young ahead of the Buckeyes.
Now, he might want to lay a little low and yank that ball cap over his eyes.
Quarterback Justin Fields tied a team record with six touchdown passes, tailback Trey Sermon ran for 193 yards and the defense had an interception, fumble recovery, two sacks and two stops on fourth down as the Buckeyes ran the Tigers out of the Super Dome 49-28 and down a dark alley on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
The prize for Ohio State (7-0) winning the Sugar Bowl is a game against No. 1 Alabama for the national championship on January 11 in Miami.
Ohio State has been taking shots from critics ever since it had three games cancelled because of COVID-19 infections and the Big Ten rewrote the rules so it could play in the conference championship game instead of Indiana.
“I’m very happy for the team after such a long journey to get here,’’ coach Ryan Day said. “They showed so much character. This team really showed what it is made of. ‘’
How dominant was this performance Friday night?
Ohio State totaled 639 yards and had possession of the ball 34 minutes, 5 seconds.
It did help that Swinney wouldn’t stop talking about the Buckeyes being illegitimate.
“We heard everything he was saying and definitely used that as motivation,’’ tight end Jeremy Ruckert said.
At least Swinney didn’t back down from anything he said.
“I don’t have any regrets about that,” he said. “The only thing I regret is I obviously didn’t do a good enough job getting my team ready. But I don’t regret anything about that at all.”
Swinney even tossed out some credit to the other side.
“They just kicked our butts,” he said.
And he went beyond that.
“It wasn’t our night, and you’ve got to give Ohio State credit for that,” Swinney said. “They were awesome. They dominated the line of scrimmage.”
Fields was 22-for-28 for 385 yards. His lone interception was deflected at the line of scrimmage.
The redshirt junior played in great pain, too, after taking a helmet to the upper right back and ribs by linebacker James Skalski on a scramble up the middle in the second quarter.
Skalski, who is something of a Chris Spielman figure for his team and the signal caller for the defense, was ejected for targeting.
Television cameras caught Fields grimacing as he would get on and off a stationary bicycle on the sideline to stay loose.
The team medical staff gave him a pain-killing shot at halftime.
“My body is pretty beat up right now, but I’m happy and my teammates are happy,’’ Fields said. “I was thinking about all the things we sacrificed as a team and that’s what kept me in the game.’’
Right guard Wyatt Davis has seen Fields play on despite a knee injury last season and a sprained right thumb this season.
“I’ve said it a number of times before and that is he is a great leader and great teammate,’’ Davis said. “He took some nasty shots today.’’
The Buckeyes were thrown for a loss before the opening kickoff when running back Master Teague, left guard Harry Miller and defensive ends Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison were listed on the unavailable report.
Teague, the television broadcasters said, has a concussion.
But Sermon showed he was not a one-game wonder – he ran for a team record 331 yards in the Big Ten championship game win over Northwestern – in being a horse with 31 carries. He also caught four passes for 61 yards.
To hear him say it, he was just doing his job to the best of the description.
“Just getting used to the flow of the offense and really just getting in sync with the offensive line, each week I feel like I’ve been getting better and better at it,” he said. “I know what I’m doing. I trust my ability. And I’m just letting the game come to me, and just being decisive.”
Davis said he could see Sermon coming on the last three or four weeks.
“As long as we get him some creases, he is going to do something out of that,’’ he said. “We were able to control the line of scrimmage through Trey.’’
The defense was a lot more than just okay without having two rotation players on the line in never letting All-American quarterback Trevor Lawrence get comfortable in the pocket after the Tigers first two possessions.
Middle linebacker Tuf Borland said the Buckeyes were prepared to give up yards and points to the Tigers, but only to a point.
“Just stay at it,’’ he said. “Clemson is going to get yards on anyone in the country. What we couldn’t do was give up touchdowns in the red zone.’’
Clemson did come out rocking when Lawrence led an eight-play, 82-yard drive in 2 minutes, 46 seconds. He ran around right end for a 2-yard touchdown.
Ohio State needed 72 seconds to score because Sermon was electric. First, he caught a 34-yard pass to the 32. On the next play, he burst between a massive hole created by Thayer Munford, Matthew Jones and Josh Myers over left guard for the touchdown with 7:59 left in the first quarter.
“The last two games he has become a big-time back, a difference-maker,’’ Day said of Sermon.
Actually, Sermon has done a fine impersonation of Ezekiel Elliott during the run to the 2014 national championship.
Clemson came right back with a seven-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 3-yard run by Travis Etienne.
But, touche’, Fields again showed that it was game on when he ran 12 yards and completed a 37-yard pass to the 8 to receiver Garrett Wilson to get into the red zone.
Unlike last season, when the Buckeyes stalled inside the 20-yard line against Clemson, Fields delivered with an 8-yard dart of a pass to tight end Luke Farrell for a touchdown to make it 14-14.
That drive took all of six plays.
The defense got a three-and-out against Lawrence, and it didn’t matter that Ohio State got the ball at the 16 after the punt. Nine plays later, tight end Jeremy Ruckert caught a 17-yard pass touchdown when Fields rolled left and threw right for the walk-in.
It was 21-14 and Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson had the defense guessing and running around in disarray.
The defense forced another three-and-out, and the offense smelled blood. Chris Olave caught a 9-yard pass to the Ohio State 37 and Sermon bolted 30 yards to the 27.
Then disaster struck Clemson when Skalski was ejected for targeting. He buried the crown of his helmet into Fields’ right upper back.
Fields gained 11 yards to the 19 on the play, and a half-the-distance penalty tacked on another 9 yards. He was forced to sit out one play in favor of true freshman JC Stroud.
He returned and threw a perfect 9-yard back shoulder route to Olave in the end zone for a 28-14 lead with 5:12 left in the first half.
Before letting him back on to the Field, Day asked how he felt.
“He said, ‘I think I can do it,’’’ Day said. “And then he throws a frozen rope in there (for a touchdown).’’
His body was banged up, but he oozed confidence.
“I feel like I was always in a zone,’’ Fields said.
The defense was stout in getting another three-and-out.
This time, the Buckeyes were patient despite there being only 3:20 remaining in the half. Fields took the team 80 yards in 12 plays.
The touchdown was a 14-yard reception by Ruckert with 11 seconds left. He was wide open.
Day told ESPN during a halftime interview that the first possession of the second half would be important.
Ohio State motored right down the field with a 36-yard completion to Olave to the 14 being the long-gainer.
The drive ended with Clemson lineman Myles Murphy got a hand on a Fields pass on second-and-goal from the 10 and defensive back Mike Jones intercepted in the end zone.
Lawrence took advantage with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard throw to Cornell Powell for a touchdown to make it a two-score deficit.
Kick returner Demario McCall let the ensuing kickoff bounce in front of him, and it took a heads-up play by Sermon to fall on the ball in order to keep the Tigers from recovering.
It didn’t matter that the ball was at the 9 thanks to McCall’s indecision. Fields hit Sermon for a 14-yard gain on a screen pass on third down to keep the drive going.
Then he threw 56 yards to Olave for a touchdown with 4:55 left in the third quarter. That made it 42-21.
The game was all but history after Fields hit sophomore receiver Jameson Williams for a 45-yard bomb of a touchdown pass 59 seconds into the fourth quarter to make it 49-21.