GLENDALE, Ariz. — As Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields planted to throw, he saw Chris Olave — one of his handful of elite receivers — cutting toward the goal post, trailed by Clemson safety Nolan Turner, so he let fly a pass into the end zone.
But just as the ball had left Fields’ hand, Olave had cut back toward the sideline, leaving the ball to settle into the waiting arms of Turner, who cradled it and slid to the ground, knowing full well what came with it: a second consecutive berth in the national championship game.
Clemson, which cruised into its three previous championship games, took the hard road this time with a 29-23 victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night. The win put the defending champion Tigers into the title game on Jan. 13 in New Orleans against top-ranked Louisiana State, a matchup that will do well to come anywhere near the drama that played out in the desert.
Clemson, which trailed by 16 points early and by 2 points late, drove the length of the field in the final minutes with quarterback Trevor Lawrence delivering a jump pass to running back Travis Etienne, who darted and raced 34 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:49 left. It was the third touchdown of the night for Etienne.
The last-minute interception by Fields was the final regret for the Buckeyes, but it was far from the only one. They settled for three field goals early when they might have blown Clemson out, their offensive linchpins — Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins — were hobbling, and the officiating crew had delivered one gut punch after another.
One cost the Buckeyes their starting cornerback Shaun Wade, who was ejected for targeting, and another cost them a touchdown when a fumble return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was wiped out upon review.
The game’s tenor turned on Wade’s ejection.
With Ohio State firmly in control with a 16-0 lead late in the second quarter, Wade circled through on a blitz and leveled Lawrence for a sack. The play, on third-and-5, left Lawrence in need of a trainer’s attention as he lay flat on his back — and the Tigers looked equally supine.
But while Lawrence was being tended to, replay officials examined the play and ruled that Wade had lowered his helmet and hit Lawrence in the head with it. The penalty was severe: 15 yards and a first down for Clemson and Wade kicked out of the game.
Ohio State Coach Ryan Day was furious, his arms outstretched toward the referee Ken Williamson before he appeared to shout an expletive. Buckeyes fans backed him up with a chorus of boos.
Clemson made the most of the opportunity, driving near the goal line when Etienne took a third-and-2 pitch from Lawrence and eluded three Buckeyes who appeared to have him penned in. Etienne wormed his way 8 yards for a touchdown to bring Clemson within 16-7 with 2:45 left in the half.
The Buckeyes were not finished unspooling.
Clemson held on three plays, the last of which ended with Dobbins twisting his left ankle, and the Tigers got the ball back at their 17 with 1:50 left before halftime.
Lawrence hit Justyn Ross for 16 yards on third-and-10 to move the ball to the 33. After an incompletion, Lawrence bolted 67 yards for a touchdown on a quarterback draw. Left guard John Simpson created the hole and Lawrence juked past safety Josh Proctor, got a block from a receiver and galloped down the sideline.
Suddenly, a game that looked like it might be over by halftime was alive, with Clemson creeping within 16-14.
Clemson seized the lead with some more help from the Buckeyes, taking advantage of a roughing the punter penalty to drive 99 yards — the last 53 covered by Etienne after he caught a swing pass from Lawrence, eluded two defenders and sprinted into the end zone.
If the Buckeyes were ruing the targeting call, the roughing penalty and the injury to Dobbins, they had other regrets, too — beginning with settling for three field goals inside the 15-yard line.
Two of them came because Dobbins could not hang onto a couple of passes — one a looping pass he corralled as he left his feet near the goal line but bobbled as he hit the ground. The other: a screen he dropped around the 12-yard line with a convoy of blockers ahead.
Still, Dobbins was largely responsible for the Buckeyes charging in front with two long runs — a 68-yarder for a touchdown and a 64-yarder that set up a field goal.
Day may be in his first year as a head coach, but his play calling has carried a veteran’s temerity. He is not shy about keeping his offense on the field on fourth down, attacking down the field when caution might be called for, or calling for a fake punt deep in his own territory — as he did in the Big Ten Championship game.
It was no different on Saturday night when the ball came flying early.
And once the Buckeyes drove down the field with the opening kickoff to take a 3-0 lead on Blake Haubeil’s 21-yard field goal — Fields completed passes to six different receivers — Day began to put the ball in the hands of Dobbins.
Dobbins has been somewhat overlooked only because the Buckeyes had two other stars who were Heisman Trophy finalists — Fields and defensive end Chase Young. But the bowling ball of a running back with a sprinter’s speed has been a centerpiece of the Buckeyes offense, running behind a brutish offensive line.