GLENDALE, Ariz. — Perhaps we should have seen this coming.
In the weeks leading up to Ohio State’s appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinal Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes players and coaches said all the right things.
They insisted a month’s worth of bowl practice would cure an inconsistent passing attack. They attempted to instill confidence in their own leaky offensive line. And when it came to containing Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson, the Buckeyes claimed they had a plan.
But on New Year’s Eve in Arizona, the results spoke for themselves. Clemson 31, Ohio State 0. The first Buckeyes blowout loss of the Urban Meyer era. Meyer’s first shutout in his 194-game coaching career.
Not since a decade ago in this very stadium has an Ohio State game felt decided so quickly after having started. At least when the Buckeyes lost 41-14 to Meyer’s Gators in the BCS title game in January 2007, Ted Ginn returned the opening kick for a touchdown. In this game, on the other hand, Ohio State never seemed to enjoy so much as a glimmer of hope.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming.
When forecasting this game — a worthless practice, as evidenced by the result — I opted to highlight the Buckeyes’ strengths while ignoring their weaknesses. I thought a turnover-opportunistic Ohio State defense would take advantage of an often careless Watson. And hey, I was right on that one. The Buckeyes picked off the Clemson quarterback twice, including on the Tigers’ second offensive play of the game.
But not even that was enough to aid an anemic Ohio State offense.
J.T. Barrett completed 19 of his 33 passes for 127 yards and 2 interceptions while rarely converting — or even attempting — passes downfield. An effort to force-feed the ball to Curtis Samuel didn’t work and running back Mike Weber proved ineffective, coughing up a crucial fumble on Ohio State’s opening drive of the second half.
But perhaps the Buckeyes’ biggest problem was an offensive line that rarely got out of its own way while simultaneously getting out of Clemson’s.
Whether it was the unit’s veterans committing penalties, an ankle injury hobbling freshman guard Michael Jordan, or defensive linemen batting down balls at the line of scrimmage, the OSU offense began most of its plays already playing catch-up. The Tigers tallied 11 tackles-for-loss, only 3 of which were sacks.
The reason? The Buckeyes made a concerted effort to get the ball out quick, despite not possessing the skill players to take advantage of the game plan.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming.
In a loss to Penn State earlier this season, OSU allowed 6 sacks. In the double-overtime win vs. Michigan to end the regular season, it surrendered 8. Clemson’s defensive line was even better than both of those foes, and it showed Saturday.
For much of this season, the Buckeyes offense had done just barely enough, compiling an 11-1 record despite possessing a passing attack ranked 78th nationally entering Saturday. Against the Wolverines, Barrett threw for just 124 yards and a week prior in a 1-point win vs. Michigan State, he threw for only 86.
That may have been enough then, but against the Tigers, his margin for error shrunk. That was evident both on the field and on the stat sheet.
That’s not to say this season was a failure for Ohio State — far from it. The Buckeyes replaced 16 starters from a season ago, including 12 NFL draft picks and five-first rounders. Despite not winning its conference title, OSU made a convincing playoff case, suffering just one loss against the nation’s toughest schedule.
That apparently was also the Buckeyes’ ceiling for the season. Sometimes you’re a playoff team, but not a national title contender.
Ohio State’s offense, however, hasn’t looked like either in the past few months.
Against a team like Clemson, with similar talent and no shortage of future pro players of its own, that won’t suffice. The Buckeyes took advantage of the Tigers’ biggest weakness and it still didn’t matter.
When your offense can’t move the ball consistently, nothing else rarely does. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s surprising this didn’t bite the Buckeyes sooner.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming.