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Clemson outlasts Ohio State in dramatic Fiesta Bowl, reaches national title game

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CFP Fiesta Bowl Football (copy)

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence throws a pass against Ohio State during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Trevor Lawrence grabbed hold of Gage Cervenka and Tremayne Anchrum and hung on tight. Grass stains running down his back and a piece of white tape wrapped around his left elbow, Lawrence placed a hand each on the helmets of the senior offensive linemen. 

This was the final scene on the State Farm Stadium sideline before Lawrence took the field for what would be the most consequential drive of Clemson's season. The line didn't let Lawrence down. 

The sophomore with the golden hair and the platinum arm needed four plays. Four plays to drive the Tigers down the field and set Clemson up for the chance to win a third national title in four years. It was running back Travis Etienne who caught the decisive 34-yard score with 1:18 remaining, and a two-point conversion hauled in by wide receiver Tee Higgins put the Tigers ahead for good in the College Football Playoff semifinal. An interception by safety Nolan Turner sealed the 29-23 Fiesta Bowl win over No. 2 Ohio State for No. 3 Clemson, which extended its nation-leading win streak to 29 games.

Much of the focus entering the game was fixed on the matchup between offensive lineman Jackson Carman, a Fairfield, Ohio native, and Buckeyes defensive end Chase Young, the top defensive player in the nation. 

Saturday, Ohio State sacked Lawrence three times. None came from Young.

"I didn't really feel the attention on me," Carman said. "Happy my team was able to help me do my job. But I'm just out of it. I'm so tired."

The script played out differently from the last time these teams played, when Clemson rolled to a 31-0 win in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on the same field.  It appeared early the rematch was primed to swing the other way. with the partisan Ohio State crowd exploding with running back J.K. Dobbins’ 68-yard touchdown run not seven minutes into the game. 

The Buckeyes kicked things off by scoring 16 unanswered points, followed by 21 consecutive Clemson points. 

The biggest criticism directed toward Clemson this season was not its offense or its defense or anything pertaining to its play. It was the lack of quality opponents on its schedule, a talking point frustrating for both the Tigers and for college football fans outside the Upstate, bored by a steady stream of blowouts. 

A narrative emerged, spearheaded by talking heads and then used as motivation by coach Dabo Swinney: Clemson didn't play a single team ranked in the top 25 entering bowl season. How good were the Tigers, really?

"There may be guys on the team, that the rhetoric that we don't play anyone may fuel them," linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. "I would say the main thing, the reason we keep surprising people is because we know what we have within our team."

Some believed Clemson was due for a loss against more talented competition. The Tigers knew that. As the celebration wrapped Saturday, a song blared from the locker room sound system:

Aretha Franklin's 'Respect.' 

What went right

Lawrence finished 18-of-33 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to leading the Tigers in rushing with 107 yards and a score on 16 carries. Etienne led Clemson with 98 receiving yards and two touchdowns on three catches.

Despite surrendering a season-high 516 yards, Clemson's defense got stops when it needed. Most consequential was Turner's interception in the end zone with under a minute remaining.

What went wrong

After Dobbins' big touchdown run on Ohio State's second possession, he broke free again for a 64-yard run later in the half. Clemson struggled to get into a rhythm offensively early, and Lawrence was saved an interception when an Ohio State defender dropped his past.

But Clemson kicked things into another gear late in the first half and never looked back.

Turning point

With the Tigers trailing 16-0, Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade crashed into Lawrence late in the first quarter, teeing up the quarterback for defensive end Chase Young, the hardest hitter in the nation. Wade was called for targeting and ejected.

Lawrence lay sprawled on the turf, his chest rising and falling, conscious but hardly alert. He made it to his feet and ceded the field to backup Chase Brice. Brice was permitted just one snap. Lawrence returned, rushing for an eight-yard gain and then the next play shuffling to Etienne, who stopped on a dime, slipped through a crowd of defenders and reversed course for the eight-yard score.

The Tigers slipped in another touchdown before the hand of the half, when Lawrence sprinted for a 67 yard-score, pulling Clemson to within 16-14. Ohio State scored once more, on a 23-yard pass from Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields to wide receiver Chris Olave, but momentum was on the Tigers' side the rest of the way. 

Looking ahead

Clemson plays for the national championship against LSU on Jan. 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. No. 1 LSU, led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow, rolled past No. 4 Oklahoma, 63-28, in the Peach Bowl earlier Saturday. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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