When Justin Field’s pass thrown to the end zone with 27 seconds left in the College Football Playoff Semi-Final against Clemson was intercepted at the goal line, it ended the Buckeyes season. A miscommunication between the quarterback Fields and wide receiver Chris Olave resulted in an easy interception for Clemson safety Nolan Turner. Game over, simple as that, right? Wrong, as any Ohio State fan would tell you, a 29-23 loss to Clemson stings for reasons that the score itself cannot explain. The 2019 Fiesta Bowl will forever be defined as an incredible battle in the desert with both teams displaying why they were in the conversation for the best team in the country. Yet, it will also be defined by the poor officiating that largely affected the outcome of the game.
Late in the first half, Ohio State held a 16-0 lead on Clemson after dominating the first half. With a little less than five minutes to go in the first half, Clemson faced a third and five from Ohio State’s forty five yard line. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence dropped back to pass as Ohio State brought a blitz with safety Shaun Wade. The blitz caught the Tigers off guard and Wade slammed into Lawrence for a huge sack at a crucial moment in the game. As Lawrence was tended to by the Clemson training staff, it became clear that the play would be reviewed for targeting.
Targeting, as defined by the NCAA, is when a player “takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball”.
On the play, Wade appeared to initiate contact with his helmet, but Lawrence in an attempt to lessen the blow also appeared to dip into the contact, causing a more costly hit then what should’ve happened. Upon review it was determined that the play was targeting and Wade would be ejected. Fifteen yards and a first down later and Clemson got the spark they needed, cutting the OSU lead to 16-7. Following an Ohio State three and out Lawrence scampered 67 yards for another touchdown to cut the lead to 16-14 at the half. A first half defined by Ohio State’s lack of execution (three first half field goals) would prove costly in the second half.
OSU started strong in the second half forcing a quick three and out, but a slowed running game due to an injury to star running back J.K. Dobbins resulted in another Ohio State punt. Pinned at the one yard line, Ohio State appeared to have stopped the Clemson offense again until a roughing the kicker penalty continued the drive. Clemson went on to score again on a Travis Etienne 53 yard touchdown, and just like that it was 21-16. However, the next Clemson drive was when the tables turned.
Another OSU punt and Clemson had the ball once again at a crucial time in the game. If Clemson were to score it would put Ohio State on their heels with roughly a quarter and a half to play. But the Buckeyes were ready. On second down the Buckeyes’ Davon Hamilton sacked Lawrence forcing a third and long. The next play will forever be defined as one of the most controversial calls in college football. On third down Lawrence dropped back and fired a strike to wide receiver Justyn Ross who made the catch and had the ball stripped by OSU corner Jeff Okudah. OSU safety Jordan Fuller scooped up the ball and returned it into the end zone for an Ohio State touchdown. However, the play would be reviewed to ensure Ross had completed the catch.
After review, the SEC referee crew, widely regarded as one of the worst in the country, determined the pass was incomplete and the play was overturned. Big Ten supervisor of officials Bill Carolo publicly stated that the play should have never been overturned and that, “To reverse it, it has to be really obvious.”
There were a number of other calls throughout the game that remained controversial and truly played a big part in the Clemson victory. Although it was tainted by bad calls and controversy, the game itself was in its entirety a great game that was fun to watch. Clemson would go on to face Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow in the National Championship game and fall to LSU 42-25.