COLUMBUS — During the early portion of the first quarter, Ohio State gave up a couple touchdowns and seemed to have no answers for the Clemson offense.
And then the switch flipped. The Buckeyes held Clemson to just two yards per carry. They made sure Tigers superstar running back Travis Etienne had nowhere to run. And they made Trevor Lawrence miserable in the pocket on nearly every throw.
The Tigers had 34 total yards in the second quarter and struggled to block the Ohio State defensive front nearly all night in the emphatic 49-28 Sugar Bowl win to advance the Buckeyes to the national title game.
Buckeyes defensive linemen Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Tommy Togiai, Haskell Garrett and even linebacker Baron Browning caused all kinds of problems for the Clemson offensive line.
“I just feel like we got into a rhythm,” Cooper said. “Obviously when you first go out there, you don’t know how the game is going to be, how fast it’s going to be. And then once you actually settle down and see what they’re doing, it makes the game a lot slower and you’re able to play your technique.”
The Buckeyes certainly settled down and dominated for the final three quarters in the rout. And the defensive line was disruptive enough to hold Clemson to 100 yards fewer than their season average of total yardage. That was the difference in the Sugar Bowl.
The Ohio State defensive line was dominant in the win that sent the Buckeyes to the national title game against Alabama. But other Buckeyes also helped their cause in the win. Lettermen Row is breaking all of that down.
QB Justin Fields
In the two biggest games of the season leading up to the College Football Playoff, Justin Fields struggled. Fields threw two touchdowns and five interceptions in those two games. He completely flipped the script against Clemson, the best defense the Buckeyes have faced all year. Fields completed 78 percent of his passes for 385 yards and six touchdown throws while only throwing one interception. After all the talk of his struggles and potentially slipping down NFL draft boards, Fields was the better quarterback between he and Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence on Friday night. Even battling through an injury, Fields missed only a few throws and was unstoppable. He saved his best Ohio State performance for the big stage in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
CB Sevyn Banks
Sevyn Banks wasn’t perfect against Clemson. He gave up some yardage to the talented Tigers wide receivers and wasn’t perfect in pass-coverage. But he continues to become a stronger and more reliable cornerback for the Buckeyes as the season wears on. Banks had a pass-breakup in the end zone in the third quarter and four tackles to show he can be a capable tackler in the open field. Oh, and he also had an interception on a tipped pass in the fourth quarter to put a cap on the Buckeyes win over the Tigers. Banks is growing into the starting cornerback role opposite of Shaun Wade. And he is starting to become just as reliable.
WR Chris Olave
After a year of thinking about his broken-off route that resulted in an interception and led to the Buckeyes defeat by Clemson in the semifinal last year, Olave finally was able to get redemption. The stud wide receiver had six catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the blowout win, including a 56-yard scoring grab that took the top off the Clemson defense and made sure there was no chance for a Tigers comeback. He’ll have to be spectacular in the title game against Alabama, but he’s already cleared a big hurdle. He has his redemption against Clemson.
LB Justin Hilliard
The story of Justin Hilliard just continues to get better with each week. Hilliard, a former five-star prospect who has battled through injuries during his six years on campus, is playing the best football of his career. He was flying around the field making plays for the Buckeyes throughout the Sugar Bowl. It was always going to be hard to follow up his performance in the Big Ten title game when he had an interception — but he may have done just that. Hilliard had a huge tackle for loss on a screen pass in the first half. He had a fumble recovery. And he was one of the best linebackers on the field, tallying eight total tackles. His story continues to get better, and he is just getting started playing his best football in time for the national title game.