GLENDALE, Ariz. — The final image of the 2019 Ohio State football season was a devastated Chris Olave on one knee in the end zone at State Farm Stadium. Moments earlier, a miscommunication and subsequent slip led to a game-ending interception, the final chapter of a once-grand season.
The epilogue is about the critical calls that went against Ohio State in a titanic clash, with Clemson winning its 29th consecutive game, 29-23, in Houdini fashion.
The Buckeyes lost Shaun Wade to a controversial targeting call in the second quarter, which flipped momentum and had OSU in a funk for the better part of 20 game minutes. The officiating crew from the SEC reviewed Wade’s hit on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and decided it fit the language of targeting, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and ejection.
A no-call would have given Ohio State the football already leading 16-0.
“This was a crown-of-the-helmet targeting foul,” referee Ken Williamson told a pool reporter. “So it did eliminate a lot of other factors. Initial contact was with the crown of the helmet. Then he wrapped up for the tackle. So, at that point, targeting was properly called.”
Clemson scored a touchdown five plays later.
In the third quarter, Ohio State’s Jordan Fuller returned a Justyn Ross fumble for a touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 22-21 lead, albeit very brief. The play was overturned, deemed an incomplete pass, taking six points off the board for OSU.
“We had a lot of good looks on it,” Williamson said. “We put on fast motion and slow motion. The player did not complete the process of the catch, so, therefore, the pass was incomplete.”
The calls left Ohio State fans angry, including athletic director Gene Smith, who told Yahoo Sports, “Unreal!! Feel free to share how pissed I am.”
Ohio State Coach Ryan Day was obviously displeased, making multiple comments after the game that alluded to his bewilderment about the replay decisions.
“It’s hard to look guys in the eye, knowing how hard they played and how well they played,” Day said. “There were some huge plays in the game that could have gone one way or the other and they went the other way, and it’s really hard to swallow.”
Every play in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl showdown was magnified, as the nation’s two most complete teams attempted to find an edge. The officiating impacted the game, but it did not decide the outcome. A series of missed opportunities and miscues ultimately cost Ohio State a trip to New Orleans for the national championship game.
On the third-down play that resulted in Wade’s ejection, the Buckeyes led 16-0 and their win probability peaked at 91.1 percent. But their lead would have been much greater, if not for three field goals. Ohio State could have been up 24-0 or 28-0, perhaps insurmountable leads.
The Buckeyes led with three minutes to go before allowing Clemson to go 96 yards in four plays against what many believe is the best defense in college football. And Fields’ final interception was an unforced error.
The amount of What-Ifs will haunt Day for an entire offseason or maybe until he wins a national title. Ohio State was the better team Saturday, Day and Co. out-coached Clemson, and OSU’s roster was more talented and deeper.
The combination of Urban Meyer’s players and Day’s offensive wizardry and gutsy play-calling was a fairytale marriage. But late on Saturday night in the Arizona desert, home to some of Ohio State’s highest and lowest moments, another grisly verse was written. “Just a lot of tears,” Day said. “A lot of disappointment.”