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Hot Read: Clemson Comes up Short

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb recaps Clemson's 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

The sequel is rarely as good as the original in Hollywood. That was true in the College Football Playoffs on New Year’s Day.

A year after Clemson and Ohio State met in one of the best final four matchups in the playoff era, the Tigers were no match for the Buckeyes in the 2020 semifinals. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields posted the best performance of his career, throwing for six touchdown passes, on the way to defeating Clemson, 49-28.

Here are six observations from the very disappointing end to Clemson’s season:

Justin Fields Outduels Trevor Lawrence

Due to their 2018 recruiting class rankings and attending high schools so close to each other, these two quarterbacks will be forever linked. On Friday, Fields won the matchup between the two projected top NFL draft picks.

Fields didn’t just outduel Lawrence but turned in a performance for the ages, going 22 of 28 for 385 yards and six touchdowns. His lone mistake was an interception in the end zone, which was a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage.

Lawrence battled, throwing for 400 yards and two scores while rushing for another touchdown, but the Ohio State pressure forced him to fumble three times in the second half, one of which he lost and turned out to be a key turnover. Lawrence also threw a late interception on a desperation fourth-down try.

Furthermore, Fields outperformed Lawrence after taking a huge hit to the ribs in the second quarter. It was one of the gutsiest efforts from a college quarterback in recent memory.

Clemson Red Zone Defense Unable to Keep Game Within Reach

In last year’s matchup, Ohio State started fast but settled for three field goals in the red zone. As a result, the Buckeyes led by 16 in that matchup instead of perhaps as much as 28.

The Ohio State offense ensured that didn’t happen again Friday. The Buckeyes scored on all five of their red zone attempts in the first half on their way to building a 21-point halftime lead.

Going 5-for-5 in the red zone scoring touchdowns is impressive against anybody, but Ohio State did that Friday against one of the best 2020 red zone defenses in the country. Coming into the playoffs, Clemson was allowing its opponents to score on only 53.85 percent of its red zone possessions. That was ranked 13th among teams with at least 10 games played this season.

Third-down Defense Fails in Key Moments

Clemson also came into the night with one of the top 10 third-down defenses in the country, having allowed opponents to convert on just 30.43 percent of tries on the key down in 2020. But in the semifinals, Ohio State went 5-for-12 (41.67 percent) on third down.

That’s actually misleading. At one point, the Buckeyes were 5-for-9 on third down against Clemson. Early on, Ohio State’s conversions on the down also came at important moments.

The Buckeyes converted on third-and-9 along with third-and-10 on their final drive of the first half. The possession eventually ended in a touchdown, which extended the Ohio State lead to 21. That score kept Clemson an arms length away from tying the game the rest of the night.

Following a Tigers score midway through the third quarter, the Buckeyes again faced a third-and-10. Had Clemson’s defense made a stop, the Tigers would have received the ball back down by 14 having just scored and with about 21 minutes remaining in regulation.

But Ohio State converted that third-and-long as well and turned the drive into another touchdown to extend the lead back to 21.

Clemson Misses Tony Elliott & Important Defenders

The box score indicates the Tigers had a pretty good night offensively. They posted 444 yards, including 8.3 yards per pass and scored 28 points.

However, the loss of offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was obviously noticeable while watching. Ohio State kept Clemson’s top two offensive weapons pretty quiet. Mostly due to a 26-yard reception late in the game, Etienne finished with 64 receiving yards, but he averaged just 3.2 yards per rush. Rodgers caught eight passes but for only 54 yards.

Had Elliott been on the sidelines, perhaps the Tigers find a way to get Etienne and Rodgers in a better position to make explosive plays.

Clemson was also missing safety Nolan Turner for the first half due to a targeting foul he committed in the ACC Championship Game. His absence played a part in Fields throwing for four touchdowns in the first two quarters.

The Tigers were without linebacker James Skalski for a great portion of the game as well because of a targeting penalty he committed in the second quarter. Skalski lowered his head and delivered a punishing blow to Fields’ ribs.

Skalski is the heart and soul of the Clemson defense, and he exited each of Clemson’s last two playoff games with targeting infractions.

Tigers Fail to Cover Buckeyes Tight Ends

Ohio State tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell combined for 12 receptions during six regular season games this season. On Friday, they posted three touchdowns.

Farrell caught an eight-yard touchdown towards the end of the first quarter to tie the game at 14. Ruckert hauled in two of the next three scores from Fields, including a 12-yard pass with 11 seconds remaining in the first half.

Clearly, Ohio State identified its tight ends as a matchup nightmare for the Tigers, especially close to the goal line. On Farrell’s touchdown, he simply boxed out Clemson defensive back Derion Kendrick, who is about six inches shorter than the tight end.

New Year’s Day Turns into Complete Dud for ACC

Too much is made every year of conference records in bowl games. There are just too many factors -- opt outs, injuries, etc. -- that could skew results to make an argument that one conference is superior to another because of bowl game victories.

However, this year’s playoff matchups were particularly interesting for two reasons. One, there were so few out-of-conference games this season due to COVID, so this was really the first chance to see how the different conferences stacked up against each other in 2020. Secondly, the ACC had two teams involved and could potentially create an all-ACC championship matchup.

The conference, though, came nowhere close to making that a reality. Both ACC teams trailed by double digits at halftime Friday and lost by an average of 19 points.

The loss for Clemson also means the Lawrence era will end with only one championship. It’s hard to call that a disappointment, but at the same time, multiple titles seemed to be in the bag for the Tigers when Lawrence’s first championship came during his freshman season.

Instead, Lawrence will end his career 34-2 with both losses having come in New Orleans during the College Football Playoffs.