GLENDALE, ARIZ. — Facing a serious challenger for the first time in months, Clemson and its perfect quarterback delivered championship plays when they needed them most.
Trevor Lawrence connected with Travis Etienne on a 34-yard, go-ahead touchdown with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter, capping a 94-yard march, and No. 3 Clemson beat No. 2 Ohio State 29-23 Saturday night in the Fiesta Bowl to advance to the College Football Playoff championship game.
The Tigers (14-0) will play No. 1 LSU on Jan. 13 in New Orleans, looking for their third national title in the last four seasons.
Clemson played only one close game this season, way back in September against North Carolina. Otherwise the defending national champions rarely needed to play a starter in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State (13-1) proved to be every bit Clemson's match, jumping out to a 16-0 lead in the first half and then responding to a Tigers rally to retake the lead, 23-21 in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers got the ball down two at their own 6 with 3:07 left in the fourth quarter. Lawrence, after being up and down for much of the game, suddenly turned into the Golden Boy who led Clemson to a national title as a freshman last year.
The Tigers went 94 yards on four plays in 1:18, with Lawrence completing all three of his passes and mixing in an 11-yard run. The sophomore quarterback who has never lost a college start passed for 259 yards and two scores and ran for a career-high 107 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown late in the first half.
“Just the fight of this team. Didn't play great. Didn't look pretty, but just finding a way to get it done,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence added a 2-point conversion pass to Tee Higgins, but left plenty of time for Ohio State and Justin Fields to respond. The Buckeyes drove to the Clemson 23, but on second-and-7, Fields fired to the end zone and was picked off by Nolan Turner with 37 seconds left. Ohio State receiver Chris Olave had broken off his route and left Fields throwing to no one.
Olave took blame for the turnover.
“He thought Justin was in scramble mode,” said Ohio State's Ryan Day, who took his first loss as the Buckeyes' coach.
One more knee from Lawrence and defending national champion Clemson had secured its 29th straight victory and fourth trip to the CFP championship game in five years.
“I mean, what a football game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It's a shame somebody had to lose that game. I told Ryan, that Ohio State team, what an unbelievable game, their quarterback, their back, those guys played their hearts out. But in the end, our guys showed what they're made of. They've got the heart of a champion, they've got the eye of a tiger.”
Ohio State went into the fourth quarter trailing 21-16, and with everything seemingly going Clemson's way.
Fields heated up and orchestrated an 84-yard drive, capped with a fourth-and-short, 23-yard touchdown pass to Olave to give Ohio State back the lead at 23-21 with 11:46 left in the fourth.
Fields, who went to high school 20 miles from Lawrence in the northwest suburbs of Atlanta, passed for 320 yards and a touchdown. But he was picked off twice after throwing just one interception in the regular season.
It was the first matchup between the two former five-star recruit quarterbacks from the class of 2018. They were far from perfect, but both delivered in crunch time. If this is the start of a long rivalry, bring it on.
The Buckeyes had their 19-game winning streak snapped.
Ohio State and its fans will lament a few officials' calls that did not go their way. A targeting foul in the second quarter kept Clemson's first touchdown drive alive when the Buckeyes were up 16-0. A roughing the punter call against the Buckeyes did the same in the the third quarter and led to Clemson taking its first lead. Then it looked as if Ohio State regained the lead when Jeff Okudah stripped Clemson's Justyn Ross and Jordan Fuller scooped and scored. A video review ruled Ross had not completed the catch and turned a touchdown into an incomplete pass.
“One play can change the game,” Day said. “It didn't seem like we got any of those plays.”
Clemson: The Tigers face LSU for the first time since the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson won that meeting 25-24.
Ohio State: Fields and the Buckeyes start next season against Bowling Green.