Clemson coach Dabo Swinney might need to consider moving Ohio State into the top 10 of his Coaches Poll ballot next week after No. 3 Ohio State dominated No. 2 Clemson 49-28 in the 2021 Sugar Bowl semifinal behind a heroic performance from quarterback Justin Fields. The junior signal caller thrilled by completing 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdowns with more highlights than one could count as Ohio State advanced to the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Most of the damage came after Fields took a big hit to the ribs that left him in a lot of pain late in the first half. Clemson linebacker James Skalski lowered his head and hit Fields directly in the ribs. Skalski was ejected for targeting and Fields achingly walked off the field only to return one play later and continue his dominant play.
Fields and Ohio State torched the Clemson defense for 639 yards of offense. When it wasn't Fields launching bombs down the field, it was running back Trey Sermon grinding out yards on the ground. He finished with 191 yards rushing on 30 carries with a touchdown, adding 61 yards receiving on four catches. Wide receiver Chris Olave, who missed the Big Ten Championship Game, spent the night consistently getting massive separation behind the Ohio State secondary. He finished with six catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The Ohio State defense chipped in by limiting the Clemson offense. After Clemson opened the game with 14 points and 167 yards of offense in the first quarter, the Buckeyes defense put the clamps down. The Tigers finished with 444 total yards and couldn't get anything going on the ground as star RB Travis Etienne totalled 32 yards and a short touchdown on 10 carries.
Most notable was the play of Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. The Heisman Trophy finalist completed 33 of 48 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns but was rattled the entire game. In addition to his fourth-quarter interception, Lawrence fumbled multiple times, lost one of them and was held to -8 yards rushing despite the Tigers purposely using him as a runner.
The win gives Ohio State its first victory over Clemson all-time after the Buckeyes lost each of the first four meetings, including in two previous College Football Playoff games. Ohio State now moves on to the CFP National Championship for the first time since 2014 when it won the national title . That 2014 season was also the last time Ohio State faced Alabama, whom it will meet in this year's title game.
2021 Sugar Bowl semifinal takeaways
1. Justin Fields is who we thought he was: Before the 2020 season began, all the talk was about Lawrence and Fields being the top two quarterbacks in the country, the two favorites to win the Heisman Trophy and the two best bets to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. And then 2020 happened. Lawrence came out and played like he always played, and even after contracting COVID-19 himself and missing a couple of games, he returned quickly to his magnificent form.
The season wasn't as easy for Fields. The Big Ten got off to a delayed start, and it allowed other QBs to take a bit of the spotlight. Alabama's Mac Jones put up huge numbers, Florida's Kyle Trask surpassed those and BYU's Zach Wilson put up video game numbers of his own. It felt as if Fields was behind the 8-ball from the start. He started the year well, but then the Buckeyes had a game canceled against Maryland due to COVID-19. They returned a week later against the best Indiana team in decades, and he struggled a bit, though the Buckeyes won.
Then, after another canceled game, he destroyed Michigan State despite missing a large chunk of his offensive line, but after a third game was canceled due to COVID-19, Fields struggled against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game. People were happy to ignore that Northwestern has one of the best defenses in the country and that Ohio State was missing several starters in the game, including its big-play threat in Olave.
Questions arose about whether or not Fields was as good as the hype and if he deserved to be the second QB taken in the NFL Draft. Well, Fields answered a lot of those questions against Clemson. To throw for 385 yards and a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdowns while dealing with a painful rib injury should silence a lot of the doubters. At least, it will for a while. There's still the Alabama game to get through.
2. Trey Sermon has made a massive difference: Sermon has been a godsend to the Buckeyes offense in recent weeks. The Ohio State offense struggled to find consistent footing in the ground game for much of the season unless Fields used his legs. Then Sermon exploded in the Big Ten Championship Game, rushing for a school-record 331 yards after rushing for only 344 yards in the first five games.
Sermon was just as big Friday night. He didn't set any records, but he did finish with 193 yards rushing and 61 yards receiving. The Ohio State offense was already difficult to stop, but now that defenses have to respect the ground game, it becomes a lot more complicated. Considering the offense that the Buckeyes will have to compete with against Alabama, it's critical that Ohio State can run the ball if it wants to beat the Tide.
3. If you take away Travis Etienne, Clemson becomes easier to beat: Speaking of running the ball, it's important for Clemson, too. Ohio State knew it. Etienne was held in check, finishing with only 32 yards on 10 carries. He also managed 64 yards through the air, but Ohio State eliminated the rushing threat and made Clemson's offense one-dimensional. That allowed a defensive front seven that had already been one of the best in the country at pressuring QBs to pin its ears back and go after Lawrence.
We also can't ignore the fact that, after rushing for 107 yards against the Buckeyes in last season's Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State made a point of not allowing history to repeat itself. If we remove yards lost due to sacks, Lawrence finished with only 11 yards rushing on eight carries.
4. Dabo is going to have some regrets: There's irony here. Swinney has spent most of his time in charge at Clemson talking about how his program is continuously disrespected and overlooked. Now, that hasn't been the case for a few years, but it's a gimmick that's worked well for Swinney and the Tigers. They've done well playing the underdog. And that's why I was confused about Swinney being so willing to talk about how he didn't think Ohio State deserved to be in the CFP.
Even though I understood -- and largely agreed with -- his point that it's not fair the Buckeyes were chosen after playing six games while others were forced to play 11 or 12, I didn't understand the need to give them the bulletin board material ... over and over again ... all week long. I felt the same way about putting the Buckeyes at No. 11 on his Coaches Poll ballot even though the poll has no bearing on the playoff, and he knew it would be public record.
He put Clemson in the role of big, scary favorite and let Ohio State play the underdog role that nobody believes in. And it burnt him badly in New Orleans. It's not the reason Ohio State won the game, but it certainly didn't hurt.
5. Clemson has been here before: This isn't a takeaway as much as it's a remarkable stat. Fields threw for six touchdowns against Clemson on Friday night, marking the seventh time a QB has thrown for at least six touchdowns in a bowl game. It was the second time it happened to Clemson.
West Virginia's Geno Smith threw six touchdowns in a 70-33 win over the Tigers in the 2012 Orange Bowl. Swinney fired then-defensive coordinator Kevin Steele after the game. Steele is back on the market after finishing his stint as Auburn's interim coach, but something tells me Brent Venables has built up more than enough credit to survive a bad night.