MIAMI – For a second game in a row, just when it appeared Ohio State was on the verge of taking control of a football game, it all slipped away.
And with it, the consolation prize slipped away, just as the big prize had four weeks earlier.
The Orange Bowl seemed to be there for the taking for Ohio State when it ran off 20 unanswered points to grab a 29-20 lead over Clemson in the third quarter on Friday night.
But the Tigers, with the help of two crucial Ohio State mistakes, came back to take a 40-35 win that put a disappointing ending on a season that was filled with great expectations through the first 12 games.
That ending was a repeat of the Big Ten championship game when OSU ran off 24 unanswered points and appeared ready to vanquish Michigan State, but couldn’t hold on and keep its national championship dreams alive.
“It’s going to sting for a while, probably a long while because we didn’t finish and it was right there for us to finish,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Before a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7, Ohio State was riding a 24-game winning streak and could have secured a place in the BCS national championship game with a win over the Spartans.
When that dream was crushed, the next-best thing was to go out with a win in the Orange Bowl.
As Meyer put it in the week leading up to Friday night’s game, “13-1 is different than 12-2.”
It still looked like there was a chance to pull out a win when C.J. Barnett picked off a pass by Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd with 1:27 to play. But it took only two plays for Ohio State’s Braxton Miller to throw an interception to Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony that sealed the win.
“It’s going to sting, it’s going to sting for a long while. It was there to finish and we didn’t finish,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Boyd (31 of 40 for 378 yards and 5 TDs) and receiver Sammy Watkins (16 catches, 227 yards, 2 TDs) led Clemson (11-2). Boyd also rushed for 127 yards on 20 carries. Clemson had 576 yards total offense.
For Ohio State (12-2), Carlos Hyde rushed for 113 yards on 25 carries and Miller was 16 of 24 for 234 yards and two TDs, with two interceptions.
Ohio State’s defense has been criticized all season for giving up big plays and it gave up quite a few on Friday night. But the offense also came up short in several areas, turning the ball over four times, allowing five sacks and converting only 2 of 13 third-down situations.
The Buckeyes led 22-20 at halftime and increased that margin to nine points at 29-20 when Hyde ended an 87-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:50 left in the third quarter.
But then they made two bad mistakes that turned the game around.
After stopping Clemson on its first series following Hyde’s TD, Corey Brown fumbled a punt, Clemson recovered at OSU’s 33-yard line and it took the Tigers only three plays to score a touchdown.
Boyd’s 30-yard pass to Watkins cut the lead to 29-27.
“He really wanted to make a game-changing attempt to do something. But we’re not playing the blame game. That was a big play, though,” Meyer said.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thought Brown’s fumble was the turning point of the game.
“The spark to me was the punt return fumble. We were down, we were down. That was a huge, huge play. That was the spark we needed,” Swinney said.
On Ohio State’s next series, Miller threw an interception and Clemson needed only four plays to go up 34-29 on a 3-yard Boyd to Martavis Bryant touchdown pass with 0:32 seconds left in the third quarter.
Ohio State regained the lead at 35-34 on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Hyde from Miller.
But once again, Clemson had an answer when it marched 75 yards in 13 plays, the last one a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Stanton Seckinger for a 40-35 lead with 6:16 left in the game.
The game began ominously for Ohio State’s often-burned defense when Clemson scored six plays into the game when Boyd ran 48 yards for a touchdown.
After Ohio State tied the game at 7-7 on a 33-yard run by Miller, Clemson came back with another big play, a 34-yard touchdown pass from Boyd to Watkins.
Ohio State cut the lead to 14-9 on a safety when Boyd was called for intentional grounding out of his own end zone under a big rush from Joshua Perry and Joey Bosa.
Freshman defensive back Vonn Bell’s interception at OSU’s 5-yard line early in the second quarter stopped Clemson when it appeared headed for another TD. But Clemson couldn’t be stopped on its next possession and went up 20-9 on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Boyd to Martavis Bryant with 6:16 left in the first half.
But improbably, almost inexplicably, Ohio State found itself with a 22-20 halftime lead despite seeing its defense torched for 362 yards of total offense and 11 plays of 10 yards or more, including six plays of more than 20 yards in the first two quarters.
Two quarters later, it found itself in a position it never could have imagined when it went to 12-0 for the second season in a row after a win at Michigan.