NEW ORLEANS — Nothing was going to stop Ohio State. Not doubt. Not criticism.
Not a Clemson team that had come to expect that every season should end in a national championship game. Not a helmet brutally planted in Justin Field’s right side. Nothing could stop Ohio State on Friday night in the Superdome.
No. 3 Ohio State played a game for the ages when it dominated favored No. 2 Clemson 49-28 in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, its first playoff win since the 2014 season.
The Buckeyes (7-0) will play Alabama on Jan. 11 in Miami for the College Football Playoff championship.
Justin Fields (22 of 28 for 385 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Trey Sermon (193 yards on 31 carries) led an OSU offense which produced 639 yards of total offense, a school record for a bowl game. Four Buckeyes receivers caught touchdown passes, led by Chris Olave and Jeremy Ruckert with two each.
Defensively, Ohio State held Clemson to 44 yards rushing, and even though the Tigers’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 400 yards, it harassed him, especially in the second half, and avoided allowing explosive plays for the most part.
“I think it’s huge. We still have another game to play and this thing is not done yet. But I think this is big for us,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
“This was a statement for us as a program to win a College Football Playoff game, especially after what happened last year (a controversial 29-23 loss to Clemson in a playoff semifinal). It means a lot for our program. But we’re not done.”
Clemson led 7-0 and 14-7 early in the game but OSU went up 21-14 early in the second quarter. Minutes later, though, it looked like Fields might be done for the night when Clemson linebacker James Skalski drilled him in the side with his helmet at the end of a running play.
Skalski was called for targeting and ejected from the game and Fields limped off the field, holding his side. Skalski was also ejected from last year’s national championship game against LSU for targeting.
Freshman C.J. Stroud replaced him for one play before Fields returned and threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Olave to put OSU up 28-14 with five minutes left in the first half. He threw another TD pass to Ruckert with 11 seconds left in the first half to give Ohio State a 35-14 halftime lead.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Are you going to make it?’ And he said, ‘I have to, I don’t have a choice,’ ” Day said. “At that point we had to kind of figure out what he could and couldn’t do for a little while. He couldn’t do everything, but what a gutsy performance, what a tough and special young man.”
Fields shared the same motivations as his teammates — fighting through nearly having the season canceled, the uncertainty of having three games canceled because of COVID-19, hearing they didn’t belong in the Big Ten championship game and the College Football Playoff and, of course, last year’s loss to Clemson.
But OSU’s junior quarterback had a little extra motivation to draw on. After being universally lauded last season, he heard significant criticism for the first time after throwing three interceptions against Indiana and two more in the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern.
“The Indiana game kind of bothered him. And then last week a lot of people were talking poorly about him as a quarterback. He didn’t play well in that game (the Big Ten championship game). But he knew it. He learned a lot about himself as a quarterback this week. He got right back to work,” Day said.
“The conversation we had was if you go out and play well in this game and win this game nobody is going to remember the Big Ten championship game. They’ll remember this one for a long time in the history of Ohio State football.
“This is a competitive guy that has had a lot of success. So to come off that game, that doesn’t sit well with him at all. He had an edge to him all week. This kid is tough, So much of being a great quarterback is being tough. And he’s tough. This performance, not just by Justin, but by this whole team will go down in Ohio State history as a landmark game,” Day said.
Fields said, “I think everybody doubting us just pushed us a little more. This just shows that anything is possible.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “Obviously, it was not our night. I’m incredibly disappointed with how we played. They just absolutely dominated the game. They were the better team and they earned it.”