GLENDALE, Ariz. — As Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields planted to throw, he saw Chris Olave cutting toward the goal post, trailed by Clemson safety Nolan Turner, just as he had on an earlier fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
So he let fly a pass toward the end zone.
But just as the ball had left Fields’ hand, Olave cut back toward the sideline, leaving the ball to settle into the waiting arms of Turner, who cradled it and slid to the ground, knowing full well what came with it: a second consecutive berth in the national championship game.
Clemson, which cruised into its three previous championship games, took the hard road this time with a 29-23 victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night. The win put the defending champion Tigers into the title game on Jan. 13 in New Orleans against top-ranked Louisiana State, a matchup that will do well to come anywhere near the drama that played out in the desert.
Clemson, which trailed by 16 points early and by 2 points late, drove the length of the field in the final minutes with quarterback Trevor Lawrence delivering a jump pass to running back Travis Etienne, who darted and raced 34 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:49 left.
The last-minute interception by Fields was the final regret for the Buckeyes, but it was far from the only one. They settled for three field goals early when they might have blown Clemson out, their offensive linchpins — Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins — were hobbling, and the officiating crew had delivered one gut punch after another.
One cost the Buckeyes their starting cornerback Shaun Wade, who was ejected for targeting, and another cost them a touchdown when a fumble return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was wiped out upon review.
“Certainly feeling a range of emotions right now,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said. “Proud, sad and certainly angry.”
The atmosphere in the other locker room was naturally more buoyant, as Clemson players and coaches celebrated what surely must have been the most challenging of their 29 consecutive victories.
If there were doubts when Clemson took over at its own 6-yard line with 3:07 remaining and trailing, 23-21, they did not permeate the huddle.
Lawrence, the gangly sophomore who until that point had stymied Ohio State more with his legs than his right arm, looked around the huddle and told his teammates he loved them. “Let’s go win this thing,” he added.
“We definitely have that type of drive in our DNA,” receiver Diondre Overton said. “We were ready for it.”
Four plays later, Etienne had put Clemson ahead with his third touchdown of the night.
The game’s tenor, though, turned long before that — on Wade’s ejection.
With Ohio State firmly in control with a 16-0 lead late in the second quarter, Wade circled through on a blitz and leveled Lawrence for a sack. The play, on third-and-5, left Lawrence in need of a trainer’s attention as he lay flat on his back — and the Tigers looked equally supine.
But while Lawrence was being tended to, replay officials examined the play and ruled that Wade had lowered his helmet and hit Lawrence in the head with it. The penalty was severe: 15 yards and a first down for Clemson and Wade kicked out of the game.
Day was furious, his arms outstretched toward the referee Ken Williamson before he appeared to shout an expletive. Buckeyes fans backed him up with a chorus of boos. Clemson made the most of the opportunity, driving near the goal line when Etienne took a third-and-2 pitch from Lawrence and eluded three Buckeyes who appeared to have him penned in. Etienne wormed his way 8 yards for a touchdown to bring Clemson within 16-7 with 2:45 left in the half.
”We knew we had to score there,” Lawrence said. “The game was getting a little out of hand. Just had to put a drive together, and we can take anything we can get. That targeting call was huge.”
The Buckeyes were not finished unspooling.
Clemson held on three plays, the last of which ended with Dobbins twisting his left ankle, and the Tigers got the ball back at their 17 with 1:50 left before halftime.
Three plays later, Lawrence bolted 67 yards for a touchdown on a quarterback draw. Left guard John Simpson created the hole and Lawrence juked past safety Josh Proctor, got a block from a receiver and galloped down the sideline.
Suddenly, a game that looked like it might be over by halftime was alive, with Clemson creeping within 16-14.“One of the things I told them at the half: I thought we took their best punch,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “I don’t think we could have played worse, but we took their best punch.”
Clemson seized the lead with some more help from the Buckeyes, taking advantage of a roughing the punter penalty to drive 99 yards — the last 53 covered by Etienne after he caught a swing pass from Lawrence, eluded two defenders and sprinted into the end zone to put Clemson ahead by 21-16.
That the Tigers offense worked that way — with Etienne catching passes (3 for 98 yards) and Lawrence running (107 yards on 16 carries) — was by design in a game between the nation’s top two defenses. With Ohio State playing man-to-man and committed to stopping Etienne, Swinney wrote two notes on his play sheet on Saturday morning: quarterback run and running back pass.
It was that threat of the quarterback run that set up the jump pass to Etienne.
But it was nearly not enough as Fields brought the Buckeyes back down the field.
Olave broke off his route because he thought Fields was scrambling.
“I’m heartbroken,” Olave said, sitting on a stool in front of his locker.
He had beaten Turner on the same route to put the Buckeyes ahead 23-21 early in the fourth quarter, catching a 23-yard pass from Fields on fourth and 2.
This play, though, unfolded differently. When Olave went one way and the ball went the other, Turner did not think about the implications. Instead, he had but a single thought.
“Just catch it,” he said. “Don’t drop it.”