Clemson, Ohio State and the making of a College Football Playoff classic

Clemson completes comeback, takes down Ohio State (2:44)

Clemson falls behind early but comes back and scores late in the fourth quarter to take down Ohio State and advance to the championship game. (2:44)

Over time, our memories distill classic sporting events to just one or two moments. This is unfair, as a classic is usually set up by a series of indelible events or actions, but our hard drives have only so much memory.

The incredible 1984 Miami-Boston College game becomes Flutie-to-Phelan and not the four fourth-quarter lead changes or 1,234 yards that preceded it. The 2006 Rose Bowl becomes Vince Young's TD run and not the multiple runs and plot twists or the fourth-down stuff that set up Young's score. The 2018 Rose Bowl becomes Sony Michel's game-winning overtime jaunt and not the trick plays and lead changes that sent it to OT in the first place.

It comes in handy, then, to commemorate classics, to set them fully formed in carbonite, as quickly as possible, before our faulty memories take over. And to be sure, Clemson's 29-23 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State, which sent the Tigers to the College Football Playoff National Championship for the fourth time in five seasons, was an outright classic, a grueling battle of attrition, comebacks, overturned replays and late-game regrets.

Boxing as a sport has been struggling for a while, but as a narrative device, it remains second to none. Let's treat the Fiesta Bowl as a boxing match, scoring and recapping it round-by-round. (You'll find the scoring in some of the rounds questionable and arbitrary. But that makes it just like real boxing scoring, right?)

Round 1

Ohio State takes the ball first and slices aggressively up the field. Justin Fields completes his first five passes for 66 yards. Garrett Wilson makes an acrobatic 22-yard catch along the right sideline that is originally ruled incomplete but overturned after replay, giving them a first down on the Clemson 5-yard line.


Wilson makes remarkable leaping grab for Ohio State

Garrett Wilson climbs the ladder to make an incredible catch that is originally ruled incomplete, but is later overturned to put Ohio State in the red zone.

The replay delay seems to take the wind out of OSU's sails, but more likely, it's the fact that the Buckeyes ran out of space to stretch the field. Three goal-to-go plays gain just 1 yard, and OSU settles for a field goal. It won't be the only time a promising drive produces only three points.

Judge's score: OSU 10-9

Round 2

On Clemson's first drive of the game, Trevor Lawrence hits Tee Higgins for 21 yards, then moves the chains again with a third-down keeper. The drive stalls out, however -- with Higgins injured in the process -- and B.T. Potter misses a long field goal. Then, the J.K. Dobbins show begins: On his third carry of the evening, the junior explodes off left guard for a 68-yard score and a 10-0 Buckeyes lead.


Dobbins turns on burners for long TD run

J.K. Dobbins breaks free for a 68-yard touchdown run for the Buckeyes to increase their first-quarter lead.

Clemson responds by driving back into OSU territory but is forced to punt. Ohio State is in control, and the champs are quite wobbly.

Judge's score: OSU 10-9 (cumulative score: OSU 20-18)

Round 3

K.J. Hill makes some fancy moves to convert a third-and-14 deep in Buckeyes territory, but OSU still ultimately punts. Clemson quickly goes three-and-out, and the quarter ends with another Dobbins explosion: this time for 64 yards. Tanner Muse tracks him down at the Clemson 8, however. That will end up saving four points.

Judge's score: OSU 10-9 (30-27)

Round 4

Dobbins makes his first mistake, bobbling a third-and-goal touchdown pass as he hits the ground. It's ruled a score on the field but is overturned on replay, and Blake Haubeil's second field goal makes it 13-0. Clemson goes three-and-out once more, and a Fields scramble and a couple of Clemson penalties set the Buckeyes up in the Tigers' red zone again.

Again, OSU stalls out. A third field goal makes it 16-0, and one can't help but wonder whether the Buckeyes are letting the Tigers hang around. They have outgained Clemson 288-86, but that domination probably isn't going to last for 60 minutes. Neither will a 16-point advantage.

Judge's score: OSU 10-9 (40-36)

Round 5

Life for the champs. OSU cornerback Shaun Wade blitzes Lawrence like a missile on third-and-5, but he's a little TOO much like a missile -- he lowers the crown of his helmet in going for the sack and, upon replay review, is ejected for targeting.


Lawrence shaken up after big hit, Wade ejected for targeting

Shaun Wade is ejected for targeting after hitting Trevor Lawrence above the shoulders.

This is a controversial call, as Lawrence, too, lowered his head in bracing for impact. If Wade keeps his head up, he maybe isn't penalized. Alas, the penalty gives Clemson a second chance, and the Tigers take advantage. Lawrence, looking quite dazed, leaves the field for a play but quickly returns, and Clemson finishes a 10-play drive that eats up 4:35 of clock with a spicy 8-yard Travis Etienne touchdown.

Judge's score: Clemson 10-9 (OSU 49-46)

Round 6

Dobbins, hobbling a bit on an injured ankle, is stuffed on third-and-1, and Ohio State punts. Lawrence converts a third-and-10 with a 16-yard pass to Justyn Ross, then gallops through the open field on a stunning 67-yard QB draw.


Lawrence snaps ankles en route to 67-yard TD

Trevor Lawrence puts an Ohio State defender on the ground with a juke and then busts loose for a 67-yard Clemson touchdown.

Now desperately in need of a response, Ohio State goes three-and-out again. The Buckeyes dominated the first 25 minutes or so of the game but lead by just two points (16-14) at halftime. Yikes. Standing eight count.

Judge's score: Clemson 10-8 (OSU 57-56)

Round 7

The second half begins on neutral terms. Clemson draws a pass interference penalty but, despite Higgins' return, goes three-and-out from there and pins OSU deep. Fields again comes out of the locker room firing -- he completes three straight passes for 46 yards -- but the Buckeyes stall near midfield (with Dobbins limping back to the locker room) and pin Clemson deep. The round ends with another Clemson punt ... and another devastating Ohio State penalty. Cameron Brown roughs punter Will Spiers, giving the Tigers a first down.

Judge's score: Clemson 10-9 (66-66)

Round 8

Two plays after Brown's penalty -- a 17-yard run by Lyn-J Dixon and a 53-yard catch-and-run (well, catch-and-explode) by Etienne -- Clemson takes its first lead.

The Tigers now hold an improbable 21-16 edge. OSU responds by going three-and-out but at least holds Clemson to the same ... with some controversy.

If you're a referee, there are certain types of calls you simply want to avoid at all costs. They are no-win situations. One took place with Wade's targeting ejection, and another unfolds when OSU corner Jeff Okudah is credited with a forced fumble while tackling Ross. Jordan Fuller collects the ball and races for a go-ahead touchdown, but it's quickly obvious the play will go to replay review.


Ohio State's fumble TD overturned after review

Ohio State thought they got a fumble recovery for a touchdown; but after review, it was ruled the ball was incomplete.

In slow-motion replay, it appears Ross had the ball stable in his hands -- stable enough to move his arms to try to get around Okudah -- and took multiple steps before getting stripped. But the one thing American football has never been able to do is come up with a satisfying answer to "What is a catch?" and every renewed attempt to do so seems to make things worse. Despite the fact that the call on the field was a fumble (thereby requiring conclusive evidence to overturn it), and despite the fact that there is nothing even slightly conclusive about the catch rule in general, referee Ken Williamson deems that Ross "did not complete the process of the catch" and rules the pass incomplete. Instead of taking the lead, Ohio State takes the ball near midfield after a punt.

Judge's score: Clemson 10-9 (Clemson 76-75)

Round 9

With the ball near midfield, Ohio State still has an opportunity to work itself back into the game, but Fields throws an interception -- one he had been flirting with for a while, with multiple passes broken up and/or nearly picked -- to Isaiah Simmons. Clemson goes four-and-out, however, and the third quarter ends with Ohio State facing third-and-long from its 32. Maybe the least eventful round of the fight despite the INT (and despite the fact that it seemed to last about an hour and a half in real time).

Judge's score: 10-10 (Clemson 86-85)

Round 10

Ohio State coach Ryan Day had his best and worst moments in this round. Fields completes four straight passes for 44 yards to work the ball into Clemson territory, but the Buckeyes seem to stall, facing a fourth-and-1 from the Tigers' 23. Instead of attempting a field goal to cut Clemson's lead to two, the Buckeyes not only go for it but take to the air. Fields hits Chris Olave for the go-ahead score ...


Buckeyes reclaim lead on Fields' 4th-down TD strike

Ohio State rolls the dice on 4th-and-2, as Justin Fields fires a 23-yard touchdown to Chris Olave to regain the lead.

... and then Day elects to kick the PAT to make it a two-point lead. As we know, this didn't end up costing him, but it very well could have. From a pure win probability standpoint, going for two up one is maybe the most blatantly obvious decision on the card. It is a no-brainer.

The only possible justifications for kicking the PAT are (A) it's too early to chase points, (B) Clemson's place-kicking situation is bad enough that the Tigers can't rely on making a FG anyway, and (C) by kicking the PAT, Ohio State can go up two possessions with another TD instead of risking going up by only eight.

My responses: (A) There were 12 minutes left, and the teams had combined for just one score in the previous 19 minutes, so we were definitely reaching "end game" status here; (B) Clemson's place-kicking is shaky whether you're up one or two points, so why not try to go up three just in case; and (C) Ohio State just went 43 minutes between touchdowns. Preparing for what happens after your next touchdown seems a mite misguided.

Regardless, Ohio State has the lead and quickly gets the ball back after a Clemson four-and-out.

Judge's score: OSU 10-9 (95-95)

Round 11

The national average for fourth-down conversion rates, with 4 yards to go and the ball between your opponent's 30 and 40, is 44% over the past five seasons. After driving 50 yards and taking nearly seven minutes off the clock, the Buckeyes had a 44% chance, then, of putting the game away -- or at least forcing Clemson to use all of its timeouts with three minutes left -- with a fourth-down conversion.

Instead, Day elected to punt. While the PAT call was inexplicable, this one had at least a little bit of logic. The Buckeyes entered the game first in defensive SP+ and had just forced three straight Clemson punts. And it was fourth-and-4, not fourth-and-a-foot -- a 44% chance isn't an 85% chance.

Still, Ohio State took the ball out of its smoking-hot blue-chip quarterback's hands (Fields was at that point 8-for-9 passing for 88 yards in the fourth quarter) and put it in Clemson's instead. The Buckeyes win the round for working the clock effectively, but they once again had the knockout blow dialed up and couldn't land it. In fact, they elected not to throw the punch at all.

Judge's score: OSU 10-9 (OSU 105-104)

Round 12

A double-knockdown for the champ. Lawrence hits Ross for 11 yards, then runs for another 11. Amari Rodgers reels in a 38-yard pass to the OSU 34, then Lawrence finds Etienne with an odd, wonderful jump pass of sorts. Etienne rumbles 34 yards for the score, his third of the night. Four plays, 94 yards.


Lawrence sells fake, fires jump pass for go-ahead TD

Trevor Lawrence gets the Ohio State defense to bite on a pump fake, then whips a pass to Travis Etienne for a 34-yard Clemson touchdown.

Ohio State gets off the metaphorical mat. Fields hits Dobbins three times for 31 yards and finds Hill for 13, as well. After two Fields rushes, the Buckeyes have the ball at the Clemson 23 again with 43 seconds left, and Fields again looks to Olave. But this time there's a gut-wrenching miscommunication. Fields steps up and throws toward the end zone, but Olave, thinking Fields was scrambling, breaks off his route. The pass hits Clemson safety Nolan Turner in stride in the end zone.


Turner picks off Fields to seal Clemson's trip to title game

Justin Fields is picked off in the end zone by Nolan Turner, sealing a trip to the CFP title game for Clemson.

Ballgame. A 12th-round knockout.

The last time we saw a semifinal game this good: Georgia's Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma two years ago. The finale, an Alabama win in overtime over the Dawgs, was almost better. May we be as lucky with LSU-Clemson on Jan. 13.