No. 2 Ohio State lost 29-23 to No. 3 Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, a game that will be remembered for a series of controversial game-changing calls that did not go the Buckeyes’ way.
Should Ohio State fans have a beef with the SEC officiating crew? Yes. Were the refs the only reason why the Buckeyes lost? No. Because Ohio State can blame itself plenty in the loss as well.
That’s the best way to approach Ohio State’s latest Playoff experience, even if the lead topic of conversation for the foreseeable future will be that series of questionable calls by referees.
MORE: Takeaways from Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl win
Ohio State can blame the refs for calling Shaun Wade for targeting with 4:47 left in the second quarter. It was a by-the-books call, though it was clear Wade didn’t have head-hunting intent: He simply hit Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence head-to-head, partly because the latter ducked into the hit at the last second. The Tigers went on to score their first touchdown of the game and eventually trim a 16-0 lead to 16-14 before halftime as the Buckeyes tried to adjust without their starting cornerback.
Referee Ken Williamson, speaking after the game had concluded, said Wade was called for targeting because he hit Lawrence with the crown of his helmet.
Ohio State can’t blame the refs for three red-zone opportunities that resulted in three field goals of 33 yards or fewer before that, however. Nor can it blame them for an offense that managed 70 yards in the third quarter. A roughing the punter penalty on Cameron Brown led to another Tigers touchdown on a 53-yard touchdown pass from Lawrence to Etienne. Whether it was running into or roughing the kicker is a judgment call. Don’t do it either way.
The play that will draw the most controversy, however, is the Justyn Ross fumble with 4:45 left in the third quarter, which Jordan Fuller picked up and ran in for a go-ahead touchdown. That call was overturned. Williamson said both the in-stadium review and video center determined “the ball was becoming loose in (Ross’) hands,” meaning he never completed the catch.
A closer look at Ross’ supposed dropped pass:
Our verdicts? The Wade call was the right call, but only because the interpretation of a bad rule leaves no choice. The roughing was the right call as well. The Ross overturn was the worst. As far as the referees go, that pretty much sums up their performance. Was this an SEC conspiracy? We don’t have enough tin foil.
MORE: Ohio State-Clemson: Scores, highlights and updates from Fiesta Bowl
Despite all that, Ohio State led 23-21 with 3:07 remaining and pinned Clemson on its own 6-yard line. A stop would have ended the game. Instead, Lawrence led a 94-yard drive in four plays, and Nolan Turner intercepted Justin Fields on the ensuing drive. There was nothing controversial about the final two minutes, and the Tigers escaped with a victory to run their win streak to 29 games.
Ohio State will lament the missed opportunity of a dominant season in which the Buckeyes won every regular-season game by double digits and had two Heisman Trophy finalists in Fields and defensive end Chase Young. Yet it was an injury to running back. J.K. Dobbins — who had nine carries for 142 yards in the first quarter before suffering an ankle injury in the second quarter — that affected the game plan the most.
Ryan Day couldn’t be as aggressive as he wanted to with Dobbins hobbled, and the Tigers took advantage with the help of some bad calls.
The Buckeyes will learn from the experience. This wasn’t a full-fledged meltdown like the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, a 31-0 loss to Clemson. Fields will be back and among the Heisman Trophy favorites for a team that will be favored — again — in every regular-season game. The Buckeyes will be primed for a fourth straight Big Ten championship and another shot at the Playoff.
At least they know not to leave it in the hands of the officials next time.
Championship teams never do.