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Clemson fights back to defeat Ohio State 29-23


After trailing at halftime for the first time in 15 months, No. 3 Clemson fought back over the final 30 minutes to edge No. 2 Ohio State 29-23 in a thrilling Fiesta Bowl semifinal and advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 13 in New Orleans. Trailing 16-0, the Tigers battled back behind star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Though Lawrence did not have his greatest game as a passer, he used his legs to great success, opening up passing lanes later in the game.

Lawrence finished 18 of 33 for 249 yards passing and two touchdowns, including a go-ahead and eventual game-winning scoring toss to running back Travis Etienne with 1:49 remaining to give the Clemson the late lead.

Lawrence's other touchdown pass was also to Etienne on a screen pass. In an interesting reversal, Etienne had a bigger impact in the passing game than on the ground, while Lawrence stood out as Clemson's leading rusher, finishing with a career-high 107 yards, including a career-long 67-yard rushing touchdown.

As for Ohio State, it had plenty of opportunities and will no doubt wonder what could have been. The Buckeyes had to settle for field goals on all three of their red zone possessions. They also had two personal foul penalties that extended Tigers touchdown drives, and they turned the ball over twice. The final turnover in the waning seconds was the backbreaker as QB Justin Fields was picked off in the end zone by defensive back Nolan Turner.

Clemson will be defending its national championship while looking to win its third in the last four seasons. It will face No. 1 LSU, which opens as a 3.5-point favorite in the CFP National Championship.

So what can we take away from a fantastic playoff semifinal? I'm glad you asked.

1. Clemson's experience mattered: When Ohio State jumped out to an 16-0 lead, it was not unreasonable to believe a lot of teams would have faltered. Given the stakes involved and the strength of the opponent, teams without the experience that Clemson has wouldn't have known how to deal with it. But Clemson hasn't won two national titles in the last three years for nothing. This is a team that has been in these kinds of moments and knows how to respond.

Well, OK, there was some unfamiliar territory here. Although Clemson cut the Ohio State lead to 16-14 before halftime, when Lawrence took the first snap of the third quarter, it was the first time in his college career that he did so with his team trailing after 30 minutes. Clemson hadn't been behind a team in the second half since Sept. 29, 2018, when it trailed Syracuse 16-7 at halftime. Lawrence started that 'Cuse game but was knocked out of it late in the second quarter and didn't play the second half.

On Saturday night in Glendale, Arizona, Clemson never doubted for a moment that it could come back and win. And it did just that behind Lawrence, Etienne & Co.

2. Lawrence is truly special ... which is one of the main reasons why Clemson knew it could come back! While the box score won't show it, this might have been the best performance of Lawrence's already-decorated career. His top two targets -- wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross -- missed chunks of the game while dealing with injuries. Etienne had a difficult time finding room to run, finishing with only 36 yards rushing on 10 carries. Lawrence completed only 54.5 percent of his passes for 7.8 yards per attempt, both numbers well below his season-long averages of 68.8 percent and 9.4 yards, but every time Clemson needed him to make a play, he made it.

Lawrence took a beating physically as Ohio State defenders took every chance they had to lay a hit on him during his 13 carries. He was sacked three times and took plenty of hits throughout the game, but he battled through to rush for a career-high 107 yards as the Ohio State defense did everything in its power to take Etienne out of the game.

Then, on Clemson's final drive, he painted a masterpiece. It was 11 yards to Ross up the seam for a first down. On the next play, he scrambled for 11 yards and another first down. Then he bought time in the pocket, scanned the entire field, and found WR Amari Rodgers for a 38-yard pickup to the Ohio State 34. There was no settling for a field goal, though, because the next play was the 34-yard touchdown pass to Etienne after Lawrence sold he was going to run it again. Four plays, 94 yards, 78 seconds off the clock, and another heart ripped out of an opponent. When you're watching him play, it's hard to believe he's only 20 years old because he plays with the poise and experience of Tom Brady.

3. Cliches are cliches for a reason: You hear coaches talk about finishing drives, and there's a good reason for it. Finishing drives wins games. Ohio State had a 16-0 lead early in this game that could have been 28-0. Clemson came back from 16-0, but odds are 28-0 would have been too tall of a mountain to climb. Ohio State had three red-zone possessions and had to settle for a field goal each time. The Buckeyes had 516 yards of offense -- 99 more than Clemson -- but scored only two touchdowns. Clemson scored four. The math here isn't complicated.

Then there were the penalties. Coaches hate penalties, and Ohio State had eight of them for 77 yards. One was a targeting call on Shaun Wade that not only cost the Buckeyes defense a pivotal player for the rest of the game but turned what would have been a fourth down into a Clemson first down. A few plays later, the Tigers were scoring their first touchdown. Then, in the third quarter, after pinning Clemson at its 1-yard line and forcing a punt, Ohio State was called for roughing the punter. Clemson responded with a 99-yard touchdown drive to take its first lead at 21-16.

Coaches will also tell you that turnovers kill, and turnovers sure didn't help Ohio State! Isaiah Simmons made a terrific play to pick off a Justin Fields pass in the third quarter. It was only his second interception of the season, and Ohio State's defense was able to force a punt, but it still ended an Ohio State drive that had entered Clemson territory. A drive that could have resulted in points.

Then there was Fields' third interception of the season, this one in the end zone on the final drive to end the game. Clearly there was a miscommunication between Fields and WR Chris Olave, and while it was the last minute of the game, maybe that wasn't a chance Fields needed to take.

Both Ohio State and Clemson are great teams and reached this College Football Playoff because of it. But even if you're an elite team, you can't beat another elite team if you keep beating yourself. And Ohio State beat itself often in the Fiesta Bowl.

4. I love J.K. Dobbins: He never gets as much attention as he deserves, but he's so good. Dobbins finished with 174 yards rushing and had 47 yards receiving as well. He did a lot of this after suffering an ankle injury but returning to the game to help his team. He's been one of the most underrated players in the country the last two seasons, so I'm happy he had a chance in the spotlight to show the world what he can do. Of course, he also dropped a couple of passes that led to Ohio State having to settle for red zone field goals instead of touchdowns, so not even Dobbins was immune from regret in this game.

5. Ohio State fans will want to blame the refs for this one: The targeting call on Wade was targeting by the strict definition of the rule book, and his ejection was warranted by the rule book. That said, I don't think it should have been targeting, and I wish we lived in a world where there was more leeway in what counted as targeting and what didn't. We don't, however, and Wade was ejected. It led to a Clemson touchdown.

The play I believe Ohio State fans will have legitimate beef on was a play that was initially called an Ohio State touchdown. Lawrence completed a pass to Ross, who was then stripped of the ball by OSU's star cornerback Jeff Okudah. Ohio State's Jordan Fuller then scooped it up and took it to the house to give his team a temporary 23-21 lead late in the third quarter. After reviewing it, the refs overturned the call saying that Ross never had full possession, which was an odd conclusion to come to after he took three full steps with the ball in his hands.

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