Clemson takes aim at Ohio State in Sugar Bowl

Field Level Media

December 22, 2020 at 5:35 pm.

The impact of Ohio State’s 29-23 loss to Clemson in the 2019 College Football Playoff semifinal has reverberated for nearly a year among the Buckeyes.

On Jan. 1 they will have an opportunity to create happier memories at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans when they face the No. 2 Tigers (10-1) in a semifinal matchup for the third time in five seasons.

The Buckeyes (6-0) led 16-0 through 25 minutes last season before Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence led the comeback. Still, Ohio State drove to the Tigers’ 23 with a chance to potentially win the game until Justin Fields was intercepted in the end zone by Nolan Turner with 37 seconds left in the game.

“Fresh off of that game, it was right on our minds, and something that when we got back to work and winter workouts, January, February, it was right there for us,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Sunday. “Coming off that game, we just didn’t get over it in one day. It took time.

“As we got into spring ball, we started to move forward, and then the quarantine happened. The goal was to get back into the situation. … And we wanted – once that game was over, we wanted to get back here.”

There was even a sign with the score posted in the Buckeyes’ weight room – an honor usually reserved for rival Michigan.

After defeating Ohio State, Clemson was denied a second straight national title by losing to LSU. The Tigers also won the CFP title in 2016 following a 31-0 rout of the Buckeyes in the semifinal and they are 4-0 all-time in the series.

“If we’re playing Ohio State, it’s a playoff,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Or it was a BCS bowl, back in 2013 in the Orange Bowl. We don’t have them on our regular schedule anytime in the near future, so you know it is a big, big postseason game when you play those guys.”

The No. 3 Buckeyes will try to establish the run using Trey Sermon, who gained a school and FBS conference championship game-record 331 yards during a 22-10 win over Northwestern in the Big Ten title game on Saturday.

Ohio State had 22 players out for the game, mostly because of COVID-19 issues, so the status of players such as top receiver Chris Olave and starting linebacker Baron Browning are unknown as they complete protocols. The Buckeyes might get a boost from the adjusted conference protocol for COVID quarantine, which is reduced to 17 days. Day said “a good number” of the players who missed the Big Ten title game should be cleared for the Jan. 1 game.

Lawrence tested positive earlier this season, missing the Nov. 7 double-overtime loss at Notre Dame. He showed he’s fully recovered by throwing for 322 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 90 yards and a score to down the Fighting Irish 34-10 to win the ACC championship Saturday.

He got support from running back Travis Etienne (124 yards and a TD on 10 carries).

Those two were lethal vs. the Buckeyes last season. Lawrence had 259 passing yards and a touchdown, plus 107 yards and a score on the ground while Etienne had 134 all-purpose yards and three TDs.

“I think (Lawrence) and Etienne are two of the most dynamic players in college football, and probably in the history of college football,” Day said.

Swinney’s opinion of Ohio State has been a hot topic since the release of the CFP rankings. Swinney said he felt the six-game resume of Ohio State, which began the season in late October, put the Buckeyes on a different playing field than many of the other contenders. Swinney backed up his feelings by rankings the Buckeyes No. 11 in the final coaches’ poll of the season.

“I think any time you step in between the lines, the game of football, there’s a lot that can happen. A lot,” Swinney said. “I mean, heck, in 2017, we lost to a three-win or four-win Syracuse team and still went to the playoffs. So anything can happen. Guys can get hurt. There’s a lot. So I think the fact that we’re going to have 11 games as well as the SEC teams — I mean, you look at Florida and Texas A&M and Alabama. I mean, these teams are going to have 11 games this year.

“It’s incredible and I think the Big Ten had the same opportunity and they chose not to play, and I think the only reason they ended up playing is because of the leadership of the SEC and the ACC and the Big 12, and have demonstrated that we can do it and do it in a safe way. So it’s been an unbelievably challenging season, that’s for sure. …

He continued: “Obviously, as coaches, we don’t control any of that stuff. So I do think that our team has played incredibly well. We had a double-overtime loss at the No. 2 team in the country now in Notre Dame, who’s a great team and an unbelievable game. Again, no matter what happens for Notre Dame or Clemson, nothing changes in my mind, as far as both of these teams being in the top four.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban argued Sunday that, while Ohio State is talented, the psychological toll of the elongated season and the physical challenges of playing a full SEC schedule made for an unfair advantage to teams that are relatively rested and fresh entering January.