No. 2 Ohio State's 29-23 loss to No. 3 Clemson in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl semifinal will go down as a classic case of missed opportunities. It will also be a game that Buckeyes fans won't soon forget because of two controversial calls that went the other way in favor of the Tigers. In a tight game that went back and forth all evening, such calls were magnified 100 times what they normally would have been.
The first came on what was ultimately a targeting ejection levied against Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade, who sacked Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the second quarter. Lawrence was initially slow to get up before jogging off the field on his own, but the hit went to official review. It was determined that Wade lowered his head and hit Lawrence with his helmet, leading him to be ejected for the rest of the game. While there were all kinds of momentum swings throughout the night, this was the first time Clemson was given a second chance to show some life, and it capitalized on it later in the drive with a Travis Etienne touchdown.
So, was this targeting on Wade? It's true that Lawrence dipped into the tackle, but Wade likely got dinged on the fact that he didn't lift his head when he made his wrap up. According to the letter of the law, that kind of leading with the helmet will get a targeting call almost every time.
Now, was Wade launching or making a malicious play? Not at all, and that's where a Level I/Level II type of penalty would benefit the game. Wade was trying to make a play, and at full speed, did it just incorrectly enough to get a flag. It happens all the time, it's not universally or consistently enforced, and it's probably not something that needs to be punished via ejection.
The next call Ohio State fans will remember is the strip fumble scoop-and-score in the second half by Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who appeared to rip the ball away from Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross. Officials initially let the play go on, and the Buckeyes picked the ball up, running it into the end zone for a touchdown to momentarily go up 23-21. However, further review led to the referees overturning the call, ruling the pass incomplete.
In real-time at full speed, it looked like a pass breakup. However, in slow motion, Ross has both hands on the ball and takes three or four steps before Okudah gets it loose. Whether you think that's a fumble or an incompletion, it's worth pointing out that, again, officials let the play unfold (as they should have). To overturn it means there was indisputable evidence. One could argue that slow motion would indicate that the call should, at the very least, stand. This was the conclusion of Terry McAulay, a former NFL referee who now works with the Sunday Night Football crew on NBC.
However, ESPN's in-house rules expert Dave Cutaia noted during the broadcast that officials watch replays in real time, and as such, it did not appear as if Ross had a strong enough possession for a fumble to occur. He simply did not make a "football move" with the ball beyond getting two hands on it for a moment.
Those were the two calls that created controversy on Saturday night in this College Football Playoff semifinal, but they were far from the only calls that did not go Ohio State's way. Unfortunately, the rest were clearly on the Buckeyes.
Running back J.K. Dobbins' dropped a touchdown pass in the first quarter that took six points off the board. Dobbins laid out for a would-be score, which was ruled on the field, but review determined Dobbins didn't maintain possession of the ball.
Following the game, Ohio State coach Ryan Day spoke with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi about the miscues.
"Obviously disappointed, angry. There are a lot of plays in that game that didn't go our way, for one reason or another," Day said. "It's hard to look guys in the eye, knowing how hard they played and how well they played. A range of emotions in [the locker room]. A lot of tears. You learn a lot from adversity."
He added: "There were some huge plays in that game that could have gone one way or another that didn't go our way, and that's hard to swallow."
That leads to another point: Blaming the officials for a loss is like eating empty calories. It can feel good at the time, but there's no value in it. There are so many things that happen in the course of a game that determine the outcome. The Buckeyes will just as quickly regret kicking three field goals inside the red zone instead of scoring touchdowns. The self-inflicted wounds (eight penalties, including a costly roughing the kicker call, plus two turnovers) are the types of mistakes that make a team wonder, "What if?"
Indeed, Ohio State will be asking itself that all offseason.