How Clemson pulled off its thrilling finish at the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Inside the Clemson locker after Saturday night’s win against Ohio State, a familiar song blasted to help get this party started.
The Tigers hollered and whooped and rocked to the words of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin.
Because of course they did.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney previously claimed his team didn’t get the respect it deserved this season despite its perfect record, largely because of perceptions that the Tigers’ previous opponents weren’t very good.
But never mind that now because now they’ve got it — after coming from behind to beat Ohio State in a thrilling national semifinal game at the Fiesta Bowl 29-23.
“Just a little bit,” sang the song in the locker room.
The Tigers (14-0) earned it with a gutsy late drive by sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence. They also earned it by stopping Ohio State (13-1) with an interception in the end zone at the end, sending Clemson to its 29th straight win and a berth in the national championship game against LSU (14-0) in New Orleans on Jan. 13.
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“There was never one second that I did not think we were not going to win the game,” Swinney said. “That's the honest answer. Trevor and I talked about it on the sideline: `Man, is this fun or what? I'm not real sure how we're going to win this thing, but we're going to win the game, and it is going to be an epic thing.’”
It was indeed, especially because of how they did it. The Tigers had fallen behind 16-0 after being dominated by the toughest team they played all season. But then after a couple of Ohio State penalties helped get them back in the game, there they were at the end, down 23-21 with 3:07 left and Lawrence taking over at the Clemson 6-yard line.
What happened next combined swagger, leadership and a key play call they hadn’t tried all year.
“Trevor had total confidence in us,” Clemson running back Travis Etienne said. “He just came into the huddle and said, `I love you guys’ and 'Let’s go out here and make plays.’ And that’s kind of what we did.”
Lawrence started with three quick first downs in a row: an 11-yard pass, an 11-yard run and then a 38-yard pass to receiver Amari Rodgers that brought his team to Ohio State’s 34-yard line.
Then came the game-winner. Lawrence took the snap and threw a pop pass over the middle to Etienne, who caught it near the 25-yard line. Etienne then turned around, raced through open space and slipped through defenders at the goal line to score with 1:49 remaining. After a successful 2-point pass from Lawrence to receiver Tee Higgins, Clemson led 29-23.
“Trev threw a total dart,” Etienne said of the touchdown.
Swinney said afterward that he had this play in mind and talked to Lawrence about it before that game-winning possession.
“I actually went over and met with him right before the last drive there, and we talked about two or three things that I felt like we had set up,” Swinney said. “And one of them was the play to Travis.”
Etienne said afterward, “That was the first time running it this season.”
But it hadn’t worked in practice this week. And Lawrence wasn’t particularly fond of it.
“Throughout the week, I was like, `I don't really like this play,’” Lawrence said. “In the moment, we had a chance.”
In practice this week, Etienne even said he dropped the pass on the same play call. He said he later jokingly told his coach to “Give me Popeyes” if he wanted the play to be successful next time — a reference to Etienne’s favorite restaurant chain, founded in Louisiana, his home state.
“It was something that we’ve been working on for this game plan in particular,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We just felt there was a pretty good probability with a particular formation that you could dictate coverage.”
Swinney said he "thought we might have scored a little too quick." There was plenty of time left for Ohio State to score, which it nearly did. Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields drove his team down to the Clemson 23-yard line before he was intercepted in the end zone by Clemson safety Nolan Turner.
With 37 seconds remaining, Clemson then ran out the clock in front of an announced crowd of 71,330 at State Farm Stadium.
Lawrence led Clemson with 107 yards rushing, including a 67-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that helped cut Ohio State’s lead to 16-14. He was 18-for-33 passing for 259 yards and two touchdown passes, both of which went to Etienne, including a 53-yarder in the third quarter that helped give Clemson its first lead of the game at 21-16.
“I wrote two things down on my call sheet this morning,” Swinney said. “I wrote down `quarterback run’ and `running back pass.’ And as it turns out, Trevor had 107 yards rushing. Travis Etienne had three catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns receiving. It is just amazing how it all kind of came together like I hoped it would.”
Next comes LSU in New Orleans. Respect won’t be an issue for either team.
“That’s what we talk about all the time,” said Higgins. “Show respect in order to get respect, you know? And that’s what we were able to do.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com