Ohio State running back Trey Sermon was explosive again for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

What We Learned as Buckeyes crushed Clemson to earn national-title shot

NEW ORLEANS — The incredible Ohio State story isn’t over yet.

Somehow it’s going to end exactly where the Buckeyes wanted, even if there were too many detours to count along the way.

For starters, Ohio State felt it deserved to be playing for the national title at this time a year ago before the officials had other ideas and one route went the wrong way. Then COVID changed the entire world, upending the college football season along with it and at one point leaving the Buckeyes without a season to even play. There were cancelled games, weeks with the roster decimated, misguided rules that had to be changed on the fly and then plenty of suggestions from outsiders who took issue with Ohio State’s selection into the College Football Playoff.

After all of that and dozens of others roadblocks on the journey, Ohio State will compete for a national championship against Alabama in a little more than a week in South Florida.

“I think this is huge, I think it’s huge,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “We still have another game to play. This thing’s not done yet. But I do think this was big for us. This was a statement for us as a program to win a CFP game, especially after what happened last year. And to play the way we did, it means a lot for our program.

“But, again, we’re not done. We have a lot of work to do. Got to get on this film, figure out some things to adjust, because we got a really talented Alabama team that we got to go play.”

The Buckeyes left no doubt that they both deserved and earned the opportunity that awaits them against Alabama. And Lettermen Row is breaking down the lessons from the win over Clemson and how they’ll translate to the title game.

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Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was banged up in the win over Clemson. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Justin Fields is as tough as quarterbacks come

After the celebration was over, Justin Fields dragged himself back up the tunnel and entered the postgame press conference room. He let out a groan, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as the pain from the previous four quarters finally seemed to catch up with him. There has never been any doubt about the superstar quarterback’s toughness, but he entered legendary status with what he battled through against Clemson.

Fields added to a legacy that already included his famous return from the medical tent to deliver a gorgeous touchdown pass in The Game a year ago, adding an encore by bouncing back from a brutal, illegal shot to his ribs by jogging back out on the field to hit Chris Olave for a score. There will now be plenty of questions about his status for next week against Alabama, but clearly Fields will do whatever it takes to compete for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State continues to suffocate rushing attacks

Clemson was supposed to have the personnel in the backfield to crack the code against the Ohio State front seven. After all, they had a record-setting running back, a mobile quarterback and previous success against the Buckeyes a year ago. But the Silver Bullets were quite clearly ready for the challenge, and they were utterly dominant in holding Clemson to 44 rushing yards on 22 carries. Considering just how far the Buckeyes had fallen two years ago defensively, the work done by bunch of veteran players and a revamped coaching staff on that side of the football has been nothing short of remarkable.

Even with the defensive line a bit shorthanded with two key contributors unavailable, that unit consistently owned the line of scrimmage and allowed the hard-hitting linebackers to consistently read and react to anything Clemson tried on the ground. After all of the criticism, it was fitting that three-time captain Tuf Borland added a defensive MVP trophy to his collection in the Sugar Bowl.

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Ohio State offensive lineman Matthew Jones was impressive at left guard. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Depth, development of offensive line shines again

The challenge wasn’t as enormous as it was last month when three starters were unavailable at Michigan State. But missing even one starter against an opponent with as much defensive talent and aggression as Clemson was a big deal for the Buckeyes — and they aced that test as well.

After Harry Miller tested positive, Matthew Jones stepped into the lineup in a high-pressure setting and helped get the offense rolling with a critical block on an early Trey Sermon touchdown. After Wyatt Davis had to miss some snaps to get medical attention, freshman Paris Johnson filled in at guard and turned heads with a jaw-dropping, defender-burying block. Ohio State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa has done phenomenal work reloading the position on the recruiting trail and getting his guys ready once they arrive on campus.

Sevyn Banks gaining steam in Ohio State secondary

For all the acclaim and awards Shaun Wade has earned at cornerback, right now Sevyn Banks is starting to make a compelling case that he might be playing at the highest level of anybody in the Ohio State secondary. Banks was rock-solid in coverage, broke up one slant with an impressive break on the ball and then iced the game with an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

Of course, Banks needed an assist from safety Lathan Ransom to knock the football loose and into his waiting hands. But  the dynamic defender deserved a good break and reward for all the hard work he’s put in during his first season as a starter. Banks has come a long way since October, and while the challenge against Alabama is immense, he’s starting to show signs that he can make a play or two that can make the difference.

Ohio State simply can’t afford to put Demario McCall on kickoffs

The problem isn’t new, which is what makes it so stunning that Ohio State continues to put Demario McCall back deep as the primary kickoff returner. Since the rule was changed allowing fair catches and touchbacks to come out to the 25-yard line, that job is simpler than it has ever been — and yet McCall continues to struggle with it. Letting a live ball bounce around on the turf could have been a momentum-swinging mistake that allowed Clemson to stage a comeback, but Trey Sermon bailed McCall out by jumping on the pigskin. Combined with his bone-headed decision to stream Ryan Day’s postgame speech after the Big Ten title game, there’s just no good reason to continue to trust McCall in key situations in huge games.

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