Clemson delivers heartbreak to Ohio State team that was almost a national champion
By Adam King
The sunny locale and the Atlantic Coast Conference opponent weren’t the ones the Buckeyes were hoping for, but one never turns their nose up at a Bowl Championship Series invite.
And while there was no national football championship on the line, Buckeye pride certainly was. No. 12 Clemson (11-2), though, was having none of it and forced No. 7 Ohio State to wait until the 2014 season to start a new winning streak, taking a 40-35 victory Jan. 3 in the Discover Orange Bowl.
It was a numbing ending for the Buckeyes (12-2), who for two years hadn’t known defeat until Michigan State brought their school record-setting run to an abrupt 34-24 halt in the Big Ten Championship.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer certainly wasn’t the one who filled his team with visions of grandeur. Each week he kept the Buckeyes focused on the task at hand and left title talk to the media and fans. It hurt, he admitted, missing out on the opportunity to earn his third championship.
He won two at the University of Florida, beating Jim Tressel’s Ohio State team in 2006 and Oklahoma in 2008. But as consolation prizes go for a season many expected to end in Ohio State’s eighth national title, the Orange Bowl was a good one. Meyer came into the game with a sterling 4-0 BCS bowl record.
In this game, offense took center stage — generally a good indicator of Ohio State success. In 280 previous games where the Buckeyes scored 35 or more points, they were 279-0-1.
“We’re not a championship-caliber defense right now,” Meyer said.
But there were flashes of it. The defense swung momentum at crucial points, keeping the game within reach — and at the end, for the taking.
The Buckeyes were driving for the potential winning score late in the fourth quarter when Miller was sacked and lost the ball. Clemson merely had to run out the clock to complete the victory, but facing third-and-13, Tigers QB Tajh Boyd was picked off by senior safety C.J. Barnett.
“Man, honestly I almost threw up over there (on the sideline),” Boyd said of his post-interception reaction. “We obviously had some miscommunication, but that’s what your team is there for.”
Indeed, two plays later, the Clemson defense erased Boyd’s miscue. Miller overlooked linebacker Stephone Anthony, who intercepted the Buckeyes’ final hope. Miller stayed in the game despite suffering what he said was a bruised shoulder and slightly cracked rib.
“Our defense certainly made some plays to help us go win a game, but is it what we expect?” Meyer said. “We expect a top-10 defense at Ohio State, a top-10 offense and a top-10 special teams, and I don’t believe we accomplished any of those.
“So we just have to go out and recruit our tails off, got to develop players and work real hard with scheme and we’ll get there.”
Clemson outplayed the Buckeyes for most of the first half to take a 20-9 lead, including a touchdown on a fumbled punt return. And it would have been more had Ohio State freshman Vonn Bell not extended his hand as high as he could to snag Boyd’s floater meant for an open receiver in the endzone.
That shifted the momentum, and Ohio State would take the lead 22-20 just before the half. Clemson had two coverage breakdowns, and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller took advantage, finding Jeff Heuerman for a 57-yard touchdown strike and Corey “Philly” Brown on the next drive for 24 yards. Miller finished it off with his second rushing touchdown on the night from 3 yards out.
Senior running back Carlos Hyde extended the Buckeye lead to 29-20 with a 1-yard plunge with 5:50 left in the third quarter.
This surge was nothing new for an Ohio State offense directed by the versatile Miller (24 touchdowns passing; 12 rushing) and anchored by Hyde, who this season eclipsed 1,000 yards for the first time in his career (1,521 yards, 15 TDs). Coming in he averaged 7.7 yards per carry and gave Ohio State the third-best rushing attack in the country.
Hyde finished with 25 carries for 113 yards again Clemson, his ninth straight game of 100 yards rushing.
“I think I had a pretty good career here, and I’m looking forward to the next step in my life,” Hyde said.
All night the Buckeyes couldn’t stop the Boyd-to-Sammy Watkins connection. Watkins, expected to be a high NFL draft pick in April and named the game’s MVP, caught 16 passes for an Orange Bowl-record 227 yards and scored twice.
“He’s probably the best receiver in the country, and he’s just making plays,” said junior linebacker Ryan Shazier, who finished with a team-leading 143 tackles and opted to forego his senior year for a chance in the NFL. “We had to get leverage on him and we were losing leverage and he was just taking it up the sideline.”
The Orange Bowl was the ninth BCS bowl Ohio State was invited to, tying Oklahoma for the most. With the loss to Clemson, the Buckeyes finish the BCS era 5-4, including the 2002 National Championship over Miami. Next season the BCS system converts to a four-team College Football Playoff format. Meyer dropped to 7-2 in bowl games and historically the Buckeyes have a 19-24 bowl record.
When Ohio State hired Urban Meyer as its new coach on Nov. 28, 2011, he noted one of the lessons he learned after health issues forced him to leave Florida: Perfection is not an attainable goal.
But many people wondered if that narrative applied in Columbus. Meyer muscled through his first season 12-0 and likely would have played for the national championship if not for Ohio State’s bowl ban because of the memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal that forced Tressel to resign and wiped out Ohio State’s 2010 Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas.
This year, another 12 wins followed — setting a new school standard for consecutive victories. Meyer eclipsed the 1967-69 Buckeye teams that won 22 games in a row under Woody Hayes, including the 1968 championship. It was no cakewalk: Northwestern, Wisconsin and Illinois all played the Buckeyes tough, and no victory was closer than the 42-41 win over That Team Up North, which came down to a game-saving intercepted 2-point conversion pass.
“We had a team meeting two years ago, and if you’d have told me when I walked out of that team meeting that this group would buy in and we’d go on a nice run and (have the) highest-scoring offense in program history and 24 straight wins and all that, I’d have looked at you and said you’re out of your mind,” Meyer said.
When the Buckeyes start the 2014 season Aug. 30, they will have the majority of their playmakers back, including Miller according to numerous reports.
And they’ll be hungry to turn a season that almost brought home a championship into one that does.