Ohio State wins ‘landmark game,’ looks ahead to another

Buckeyes beat Clemson to earn shot at Alabama

Like the rest of the world, the Ohio State football team endured a year filled with unprecedented challenges the coronavirus global pandemic presented.

Then the Buckeyes kicked off the new year with a rousing victory over the same Clemson team that handed them a disappointing defeat to end 2019.

This one keeps their 2020 season alive for another 10 days. Ohio State will face No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship game Jan. 11 in Miami, Fla.

“Obviously last year was difficult,” said senior linebacker Tuf Borland, who was named defensive most valuable player of Ohio State’s 49-28 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night. “Flash forward a year later to have this game go as it did it obviously feels great. With everything this team has been through this last 10 months or so, I’m just so happy for this group of guys.”

Ohio State started 2020 with thoughts of revenge, of rebuilding from a great season that ended in disappointment.

Those plans soon went awry. Spring practice was cut short and summer workouts were held with protocols meant prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Then the Big Ten chancellors and presidents voted in August to postpone fall sports until at least January, eliminating Ohio State from the playoff discussion as the SEC, ACC and other leagues opted to try to play in the fall anyway.

The season was restored in September and kicked off in October, but that was far from a simple process.

Players and coaches isolated from friends and family in hopes of preventing the coronavirus from infiltrating the locker room, but like most teams across the country the Buckeyes encountered their share of infections.

Three games were canceled — including The Game against Michigan — but Ohio State endured, beating Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game then exacting revenge on Clemson.

“In life you don’t typically get an opportunity to get a second chance, but you can’t miss the second time,” OSU coach Ryan Day said. “So I don’t know what we’re more excited about, the fact that we have a chance to play for a national championship or the fact that we avenged that loss, but we’re going to enjoy it tonight, have a great champions meeting, and move on from there.”

In the center of it all Friday night was Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.

The junior, who started a petition and went on a media campaign to get the season restored, had some ups and downs during the abbreviated six-game season that led into the matchup with Clemson.

Despite taking a helmet to the side that had him in intense pain for the last two and a half quarters, Fields completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns Friday night.

That added some personal payback for the player whose last pass of the previous game against Clemson ended up in the arms of a Tigers defender to clinch the loss.

“My body is pretty beat up right now, but I’m happy and my teammates are happy,” Fields said. “And this is a feeling like no other. So I know my body is going to be hurting tomorrow morning, but it’s worth it for this win and for my teammates. So I think that’s really what pushed me. I was just thinking all the things that we’ve sacrificed as a team, that’s really what got me through the whole game.”

After a nearly flawless 2019 season, Fields was underwhelming in the Buckeyes’ two biggest games of 2020 prior to playing Clemson.

He threw three interceptions in a seven-point win over Indiana that decided the Big Ten East then two more in the Big Ten title game.

Those are likely to be forgotten when the story of the 2020 Ohio State season is written.

“They’ll remember this one,” Day said. “And they’ll remember it for a long time in the history of Ohio State football. And what does he do? He goes out and he throws six touchdown passes. He takes a really tough hit. He just looked at me, and I said, “How are you doing? Are you going to be able to make it?” He said, “I don’t have a choice; I have to.’”

The quarterback acknowledged the Buckeyes’ status as underdogs against the Tigers, who were 4-0 against Ohio State prior to this matchup, motivated him and his teammates.

“I just think everybody doubting us just pushed us a little more,” Fields said. “Like I said earlier in the week, I prepared for this game like I’ve never prepared for a game before. So I think that showed on the field, and I’m just proud of my brothers, proud of my teammates, and proud of the way they played.”

Next up is what figures to be an even greater challenge.

Alabama steamrolled Notre Dame 31-14 in the other CFP semifinal on Friday and enters the National Championship Game 12-0 with 11 double-figure wins.

“Hopefully this will go down in Ohio State history as a landmark game,” Day said. “Because we want to go on to win the national championship, but there was a lot of tough days — a lot of tough days over the last six months — and this team stuck together.

“And the people of Ohio and Buckeye Nation and all the people who love the Buckeyes, I hope they were able to at least watch the game tonight and get away from what a crazy year this has been and celebrate this game with us because that’s a huge part of why we do what we do, even though we haven’t been able to see them. Maybe there’s some young kids out there who want to be like Justin Fields and Chris Olave and Tuf Borland and Jonathan Cooper. And that’s what this thing is all about.”

College Football Playoff Championship

Monday, Jan. 11

Ohio State vs. Alabama, 8 p.m., ESPN, 1410

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