Travis Etienne, taking a pitch right from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, had a head of steam up as he pawed his native Louisiana turf.
But the first-down marker, just a yard away, was too far away for Etienne. He was driven to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field by Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard on the last play of the third quarter. No gain.
Three plays later, the Buckeyes piled on yet another Justin Fields touchdown pass.
So close to success for Clemson. And yet so far.
Two Januarys ago out in Santa Clara, California, when a then-freshman Lawrence fried up Alabama in the CFP championship game like a fresh catch at Fisherman’s Wharf, it looked like the Tigers would stack national title upon title. After taking down Bama two years earlier for its first CFP crown, it looked as though Clemson would rise to be the new superpower in the college game.
Then New Orleans happened. Again.
For Clemson, it is a college football dynasty denied.
Clemson isn’t the first tourist to come to the Crescent City and wake up the next morning to find its wallet has gone AWOL. But you think the Tigers might have learned by now to request a different postseason address. Clemson has endured so much heartbreak here, I swear I could hear Aaron Neville at the piano penning an exquisitely painful ballad in the Tigers’ honor.
Clemson lost 7-0 to LSU in the 1959 Sugar Bowl on a Billy Cannon pass that he said the Lord threw. It was given the boa constrictor treatment by Alabama in a 24-6 CFP semifinal loss in the 2018 Sugar Bowl, then saw LSU sprint past 42-25 to grab last year’s CFP national championship trophy. And LSU got to claim its Death Valley is more Death Valley than Clemson’s Death Valley (just sayin’).
Friday night, Clemson’s frustrations bubbled over like an overcooked gumbo. A solid touchdown favorite over Ohio State, the Tigers looked helpless to stop the Buckeyes in a shocking 49-28 defeat.
After early leads of 7-0 and 14-7, Clemson watched wide eyed as Ohio State kicked its offense into warp speed. The vaunted Brent Venables defense that vexed LSU throughout the early parts of last January’s national championship game (Joe Burrow said he never quite figured out Clemson’s blitz angles) bottled up the Buckeyes on their first possession.
But then … touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. The thin red line of giddy Ohio State fans behind their team’s bench was chanting “Go Bucks!” as Clemson, stunned, trudged off to its locker room down 35-14 after giving up 394 yards of offense.
While the Tigers were trying to figure out a way back from a huge deficit for the second straight semifinal against the Buckeyes — Clemson came from 16-0 down to win 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl last season — Ohio State fans were on their phones trying to secure some of the precious few tickets available to the CFP championship game in Miami.
The Jan. 11 title bout was supposed to be yet another Alabama-Clemson showdown. The Galactic Empire against the First Order.
But the force was with the Buckeyes. And how.
Not to take away a shred of credit from Ohio State, but critical losses pregame and in-game helped doom the Tigers.
The first blow: Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott being forced to stay home in South Carolina because he contracted COVID-19. Passing game coordinator Brandon Streeter took over the play calling duties, but the offense that sprang from Clemson’s playbook looked like a blurry photocopy of the original. It certainly appeared that after a quick jolt of success, the Clemson offense was victim of some Ohio State defensive adjustments that the Tigers couldn’t counter.
“It was similar,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said when asked if there were differences in Streeter calling the game, what is called in the news business a non-denial denial. “We just couldn’t’ get any consistency. They scored five straight touchdowns and we weren’t able to respond like we needed to offensively.”
Then, early in the second quarter, James Skalski, Clemson’s hard-hitting middle linebacker, was ejected for ramming Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields amidships with a helmet to the back.
Skalski was also the guy who slammed Burrow in the ribs just before halftime in last year’s CFP final, and who was ejected for targeting in the third quarter when he launched himself into Justin Jefferson. Skalski isn’t Clemson’s top tackler, but his tough play infuses the Tigers’ defense. Shortly after his ejection, Ohio State took command 28-14 on a 9-yard Fields to Chris Olave touchdown pass.
Swinney created a cause celebre before this game because he ranked then 6-0 Ohio State No. 11 in his final coaches' poll ballot, saying he didn't have any team that played less than nine games in his top 10.
Swinney was asked if he thought his comments motivated the Buckeyes, who already had last year's Fiesta Bowl score plastered all over their locker room.
"No, I don't regret any of that," he said. "And polls have nothing to do with motivation. Both teams were highly motivated to play.
"They're a great team. As I said, that had nothing to do with Ohio State. I said they were good enough to beat us, good enough to win the whole dang thing. But I didn't think anybody that didn't play at least nine games, in my poll, that I wasn't going to put them in the top 10. So I wasn't going to change that just because there was a chance we could play them. So I don't have any regret about that.
"The only thing I regret is obviously not doing a good enough job getting my team ready."
Lawrence said he didn't notice any extra motivation from the Buckeyes in the game. Everyone will take notice of a post from Ohio State football's official Twitter account, showing a picture of a prone Lawrence face down on the turf beneath a caption that simply reads "11."
"I don’t know how I’d gauge that necessarily," he said, "but they played a great game. In games like this you have to play really well. They earned it tonight."
Lawrence, they say, is bound to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft — but once he gets to the league, he may shudder at the thought of his team — the awful Jacksonville Jaguars; good luck, Trev — ever having to play in New Orleans. Lawrence goes out 34-2 as a starter, both losses here in the Superdome.
This will likely be the last college game for Etienne, too. A senior, he could come back next year like all college players because of the pandemic. He could have gone pro after last season, too, but Etienne, a Jennings native, wanted one more shot at a championship.
He ended up as the all-time leading rusher in ACC history, but this was a frustrating sendoff. Clemson’s do-everything back had just 32 yards rushing on 10 carries with a touchdown and caught four passes for 64 yards while returning two kicks for 41 more. A valiant effort, but Clemson has become accustomed to playing for and winning titles. If it’s Etienne’s college farewell, it is sure to feel hollow.
So close to so much more glory, yet so far away.