Clemson coach Dabo Swinney never doubted the thought of his team finding a rhythm after a slow start in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
Not when the Tigers found themselves trailing 16-0 in the second quarter and not when Ohio State took the lead and ran down the clock in the fourth.
Swinney had faith in his team's ability to make a play when needed, and they did. A 34-yard touchdown pass from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence to running back Travis Etienne late in the final quarter of play helped the Tigers punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff National Championship after defeating No. 2 Ohio State, 29-23, Saturday night at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.
"There was never, not one second, that I thought we wouldn't win the game," Swinney said. "Trevor and I talked about it on the sideline. I was like, 'man, is this fun or what?' I was like, 'I don't know how we are going to win this thing but we are going to win the game. We are going to win the game and it's going to be an epic thing.'"
Ohio State established momentum early on in the contest, limiting the high-powered Clemson offense's ability to find a consistent rhythm both on the ground and through the air. While the defense forced several three-and-out possessions by the Tigers, Ohio State's offense quickly found soft spots in the Tiger front-seven.
J.K. Dobbins quickly found success on the ground, rushing for 141 yards on just six carries in the first quarter. He accounted for Ohio State's lone touchdown of the first half, at the time extending the Buckeyes' lead to 10-0 after a 21-yard field goal from Blake Haubeil for the first points of the game.
Two more field goals from Haubeil late in the first and early in the second quarters extended Ohio State's lead to 16 points midway through the first half. But it was what transpired just before Haubeil's third field goal of the game that wound up being the turning point for the Clemson offense.
Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade blitzed from the outside, colliding with Lawrence in the backfield. The hit and tackle by Wade forced Lawrence's left knee to bend at an awkward angle, which resulted in him being tended to by medical staff before jogging off the field under his own power. But it was during that time officials had reviewed the hit by Wade and deemed it targeting, disqualifying him from the contest.
"I thought it was just a stinger," Lawrence said. "I hadn't had one in awhile so I kind of laid there. I got kind of mad and popped up. I didn't know it was targeting, I thought we just had a three-and-out and had to punt so I got kind of pissed off and ran off the field. Then I saw it was targeting and had to sit out one play."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Clemson's offense had averaged just 4.3 yards per play and was scoreless before Wade's targeting penalty. Once he exited, the Tigers averaged 8.4 yards per play and scored 21-unanswered points. The targeting penalty wasn't the only call by officials that the Ohio State faithful deemed as questionable.
Lawrence connected with wideout Justyn Ross late in the third quarter deep in their own territory. However, after a few steps, the ball was poked free from Ross and picked up by Ohio State defensive back Jordan Fuller, who returned it 29 yards for the Buckeye touchdown. However, after a lengthy review, officials ruled Ross didn't have possession and called the pass incomplete.
"It is too close right now, and I'm probably too emotional to really talk about those," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of the targeting call and others by officials. "The play with Shaun Wade, that was a fourth-down play. It was such a huge play in the game."
The play came after Clemson had already found a rhythm on offense with 3 minutes to play in the first half.
Etienne took a pitch from Lawrence and stiff armed a defender before cutting back into a running lane for the 8-yard touchdown. Just over a minute later, Lawrence called his own number for a 67-yard touchdown to trim Ohio State's lead to just two points.
"I knew we had to score because the game was getting kind of out of hand at that point," Lawrence said. "Being able to finish the drive with a score and then on the next one, too, it gave us momentum going into halftime."
Ohio State went back to Dobbins before the end of the first half, but an ankle injury limited the running back's production the rest of the way. After his 141-yard outburst in the first quarter, he was held to just 35 yards on the ground through the final three quarters.
"Our defense played great, holding them to a bunch of field goals," Swinney said. "They gave us a chance to find a rhythm offensively. We gave up two big plays on base, routine stuff."
Clemson's offense continued to fire on all cylinders in the second half, as Lawrence connected with Etienne on a halfback screen for a 53-yard touchdown pass to give the Tigers their first lead of the game. It wouldn't be until the fourth quarter that Ohio State would answer with a touchdown of its own as Fields connected with Chris Olave for a 23-yard pass.
Ohio State forced a Clemson punt on its ensuing drive, allowing the Buckeyes to take time off the clock. However, just over 3 minutes proved to be enough for Lawrence and the Clemson offense. The sophomore led his team right down the field, slicing through the Ohio State secondary. He would eventually connect with Etienne on the 34-yard touchdown for the pair's second score of the game.
Fields gave the Buckeyes an opportunity to score a go-ahead and potential game-winning touchdown from Clemson's 23-yard line as time wound down. However, miscommunication with Olave led to an interception by Clemson defensive back Nolan Turner, which sealed the game for the Tigers.
"Chris (Olave) played a great game," Day said. "He thought Justin (Fields) was scrambling. They're playing football and they're competing. Things like that happen. Unfortunately, that happened to us on the last play of the game when we needed it the most."
Fields completed 30 of his 46 pass attempts for 320 yards and a touchdown despite playing with a sprained MCL in his knee. Dobbins finished with 176 yards rushing, most of which came during the first quarter of play before injuring his ankle.
Lawrence, meanwhile, did a little bit of everything to help lead Clemson to victory against a stout Ohio State defense. He finished 18-of-33 for 259 yards and two touchdowns through the air while not throwing an interceptions for the seventh straight game. He also led the team on the ground with 107 yards rushing and another score. Etienne rushed for just 36 yards but racked up 96 receiving yards and two touchdowns on just three catches.
The loss to Clemson Saturday night was the only one for Ohio State during what was an impressive 2019 campaign, finishing 13-1 overall. Clemson, meanwhile, advances to 14-0 with the win and will now make its fourth appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship game. The Tigers will head to New Orleans on Monday, Jan. 13 to take on top-ranked LSU in search of their second straight national title.
"We are going to celebrate this one and give these guys a couple days off," Swinney said. "Then we are going to get back to work and try to find a way to win one more."