GLENDALE, Ariz. â€“ In a game when almost everything that mattered seemed to go against Ohio State — especially replay reviews on three major plays –Â it still was within its power and potentially the hands of Chris Olave to snatch victory away from Clemson in their College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday night.
As everyone knows by now, of course, that didnâ€™t happen. Clemson came from behind twice to top Ohio State 29-23 and move to the national championship game against LSU and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow in New Orleans. A running interception by Clemson safety Nolan Turner of a Justin Fields pass to the end zone with 37 seconds left extended the win streak for the defending national champions to 30.
Up to that second, though, after watching Trevor Lawrence lead Clemson 94 yards in four plays to the go-ahead touchdown, Fields seemed on his way to doing something similar when he took over with just a more than a minute left. He guided the Buckeyes from their 25 after the kickoff to a second-and-7 at the Clemson 23 with 43 seconds left.
Having hit 30 of 45 passes for 320 yards and an earlier interception, Fields and his receivers, including Chris Olave, seemed to be on the same page for the most part. That is, as long as it didnâ€™t include forays into the red zone where the Ohio State offense foundered all night, settling for three field goals instead.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, on the gutsiest call of the night by Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, Fields had hooked up with Olave on a post-cut for a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-2 that had reclaimed the lead. The thinking must have been, with 43 seconds left, why not try that again?
â€œIt was the look we wanted,â€ Fields said of his thought as the play unfolded. â€œThen Chris — it was basically just a miscommunication. So that happens in life, and you really can’t do anything about it now. Just have to move on.â€
Olave planted to make the post-cut move from left to right, but in a quick glance back he mistakenly thought he saw Fields on the move, so he tried to chop it down and head toward the corner. He slipped as he did so.
Not that it mattered. Fields was not scrambling. He released the pass intended for the post move and Turner ran it down for the pick.
â€œJustin does a lot of creating, so they weren’t on the same page,â€ Day said. â€œThey’re playing football, and they’re competing.
â€œThings like that happen. Unfortunately, that happened to us on the last play of the game when we needed it the most.â€
Olave owned his mistake, and he did not shy away from the questions from reporters in the locker room.
â€œIt was my fault. I was supposed to run a post but I thought he was scrambling, so I just tried to work the second part of the route,â€ Olave said. â€œBut it ended up he wasnâ€™t scrambling.
â€œHe trusted me to run that post. I didnâ€™t. So itâ€™s a mistake on me.â€
In a game that had a seasonâ€™s worth of What If moments, that was the capper, but only because it could have masked all the others. And as Olave proved over and over in the 13-0 run up to the semifinal this year, he usually was Mr. Reliable.
â€œChris Olave is an unbelievable competitor, and he loves his teammates,â€ Day said. â€œNobody feels worse than Chris right now.
â€œSo when you play games like this, you put yourself out there, and that’s what happened at the end of the game. Our guys were competing all the way down to the end.â€
That was little salve for Chris Olave in the immediate aftermath, however.
â€œItâ€™s the worst feeling in the world, being the target on that last play [and coming up short],â€ the sophomore said. â€œI feel like I let the seniors down and my team down, and Iâ€™ve just got to learn from it and bounce back.â€