Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (1) set a Sugar Bowl record with six touchdown passes in the Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the Clemson Tigers, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
Justin Fields penned a redemption story that will long be talked about in prestigious Ohio State football lore. And he couldn’t have picked a better time.
Fields, the Buckeyes junior quarterback from Kennesaw, Georgia, had 427 yards passing and rushing and threw for an Allstate Sugar Bowl record six touchdown passes leading third seed Ohio State to a convincing 49-28 victory against second seed Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals Friday night (Jan. 1, 2021) in the Superdome.
The victory sends the Buckeyes (7-0) into the CFP National Championship game against top seed Alabama in Miami on Jan. 11.
It was sweet revenge for Fields, named the Offensive Player of the Game, and the entire Ohio State team. In last year’s semifinal game against Clemson (10-2), Fields threw an interception in the end zone in the game’s final minute that sealed the Tigers’ come-from-behind 29-23 victory.
Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said, considering what the team went through this season with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was as sweet a victory as could possibly be.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day is doused with Gatorade late in the fourth quarter of the Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over the Clemson Tigers, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
“Clemson is a championship team so to come out here and play the way we did against them was huge,’’ Day said. “I think today showed our character. They’ve been through so much this year.
“So many people doubted us going into this game. And these guys stuck together. They wanted a chance to come back and play. And who would have imagined the journey to come back to right here to play Clemson again in the same (semifinal) game. Now we have an opportunity to go win the whole game and maybe write one of the best stories ever in college football history.’’
Fields left nothing to chance this time. And he had plenty of help. Ohio State running back Trey Sermon, a transfer from the Oklahoma University, rushed for 191 yards and one touchdown and also caught four passes for 61 yards. It was a continuation of Sermon’s impressive performance in the Big Ten championship game when he rushed for an Ohio State single game school record of 331 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns in the Buckeyes 22-10 victory against Northwestern.
In one of the key plays of the game, Clemson star linebacker James Skalski was ejected for targeting after this hit on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first half of the Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
Fields was clearly the leader though as he guided the Ohio State offense to 639 yards, 385 passing and 254 rushing. He completed 22 of 28 passes with one interception for 385 yards and also rushed for 42 yards on eight carries. And, to add to the story, he did so playing with pain. He suffered a vicious hit to his back in the second quarter yet continued to play.
“That hit really took a toll on me,’’ Fields said. “My ribs were killing me pretty much all game. What pushed me through was the love for my brothers. I would do anything for these guys. Just so proud of everyone.’’
The Buckeyes took control of the game with an impressive 21-point second quarter that gave them a 35-21 halftime lead. They made it 42-21 with 4:55 left in the third quarter when Fields tossed a 56-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Olave. If Ohio State’s victory had an iconic play, that was it. Olave finished with six catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns to lead Ohio State.
But Fields wasn’t finished. He put the finishing touch on his record setting night when he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Jameson Williams with 49 seconds left in the third quarter that drove a stake through the Tigers and gave Ohio State a 49-21 lead.
As the leader of a Buckeye defense that held Clemson to just 44 rushing yards, Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland would go on to earn Defensive Player of the Game honors at Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the Clemson Tigers, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
It was a disappointing end for Clemson, seeking a third straight trip to the CFP National Championship and its fifth overall.
The Tigers defense, statistically one of the best in the nation, had no answer for Ohio State’s high-powered offense. And the Clemson offense, which managed 444 yards, couldn’t keep pace. Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland, named the game’s Defensive Player of the Game, led the way with eight tackles, including four solo.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed 33 of 48 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in what was likely the junior’s final collegiate contest as he is expected to enter the NFL Draft in the spring. It was equally tough for senior running back Travis Etienne, from Jennings, Louisiana, who carried for only 32 yards and caught four passes for 64 yards.
Ohio State running back Trey Sermon (8) runs for more of his 193 rushing yards, the fifth-most in Sugar Bowl history, in the Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the Clemson Tigers, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
Fields, Sermon and the Buckeyes offense put on a show in the first half when the gained control, especially in the second quarter. The Buckeyes had 394 yards in the first two quarters, including 229 in the second quarter when they scored on touchdown drives of 84, 75 and 80 yards. Clemson, which scored on two of its first three possessions of the game, was scoreless and held to 34 yards in the second quarter as Ohio State took a commanding 35-14 halftime lead.
Fields showed his mettle on the Buckeye’s fourth touchdown drive in the second quarter while on the same play Clemson lost its defensive leader. With the Buckeyes leading 21-14 with six minutes left to play in the second quarter and facing third-and-13 at the Clemson 30, Fields scrambled for 11 yards to the Tigers 19 when he was hit in the back by Clemson linebacker James Skalski.
Fields lay on the ground for a few minutes and the play was reviewed for targeting by Skalski. It was ruled Skalski was, indeed, guilty of targeting when he led with his helmet on the tackle on Fields back and ribs and was ejected from the contest.
It was reminiscent of the National Championship game back in January, also played in the Superdome, when Skalski was ejected for targeting in Clemson’s loss to LSU.
The penalty gave Ohio State a first-and-goal at the Clemson 9. Two plays later, Fields, in obvious pain, tossed a 9-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Chris Olave to give the Buckeyes a 28-14 lead with 5:12 to play in the first quarter.
Head coach Ryan Day (left), quarterback Justin Fields (middle) and linebacker Tuf Borland (right) hoist the Allstate Sugar Bowl Championship Trophy following Ohio State’s 49-28 victory over the Clemson Tigers in a Playoff Semifinal, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Photo by Wally Porter.
“What he means to me, I can’t put into words,’’ Day said of Fields. “The amount of time we spend together, for him to come out and play the way he did after so many people had doubted him nationally. He took the big hit, he looked me in the eye and said there is no way we’re losing this game.’’
On its next possession in the waning moments of the second quarter, Sermon led the Buckeyes on a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. He rushed for 32 yards on the drive and caught two passes for 14 yards. Fields punctuated the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Ruckert with 11 second left to play and the 35-14 halftime lead.
Fields completed 16 of 18 passes for four touchdowns and 223 yards in the first half and rushed for 50 yards. Sermon rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown in the first half. And Ruckert had three catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns.
All seven touchdown drives by the two teams were 75 yards or longer. And the 49 points in the first half by the two teams was the second most combined by two teams in Sugar Bowl history, eclipsed only by 52 points scored by West Virginia and Georgia in 2006.