Justin Fields fell to the turf, pain pulsating through his body after the helmet of a defender smashed into his rib cage.
Ohio State had finally taken a lead over Clemson, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Fields, its leader and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
But in that moment, late in the second quarter of Friday night’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, with so much of the College Football Playoff semifinal still waiting to be played, the Buckeyes’ optimism teetered on the brink of fading.
A chance to play for a national title stood ahead of Fields.
Behind him was the time he fell short, that semifinal, also against Clemson, a year ago when he suffered his only loss as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.
And so Fields continued to play, guiding the No. 3 Buckeyes to a 49-28 win and a spot in the national championship game.
Ohio State will face No. 1 Alabama on Monday, Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
After an up-and-down season, Fields performed at his best as he propelled Ohio State ahead of the No. 2 Tigers.
Fields delivered accurate passes with poise and toughness, throwing for 385 yards and six touchdowns.
After Fields rushed for an 11-yard gain during the second quarter, Clemson linebacker James Skalski tackled him short of the first-down marker.
But Skalski hit Fields with the crown of his helmet, so he was called for targeting and ejected, leaving Clemson without one of its best defenders.
Fields missed one play, then sandwiched a dart to the end zone between grimaces of pain and returned to the field after halftime.
Running back Trey Sermon added another dimension to this Ohio State offense with 193 rushing yards and a touchdown — a needed reprieve for Fields, whose pain lingered throughout the evening.
The Sugar Bowl was a much-anticipated dual between Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, top-tier quarterbacks unfamiliar with losing and prone to generating electrifying performances.
Lawrence, pegged as the projected first pick in this year’s NFL draft, produced the more impressive season, and he had a solid outing Friday — 400 passing yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
But Fields produced the championship-caliber performance.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) January 2, 2021
Fields and the rest of the Ohio State offense powered to 639 yards as Lawrence slipped into an unexpected predicament, trailing 42-21 late in the third quarter.
Before this game, Lawrence had only lost once — last year’s national championship game against LSU in the same building — but he has now presumably ended his remarkable college career with a 34-2 record as Clemson’s starter.
Fields’s lone mistake came just after halftime, when he threw an interception, grabbed by Clemson linebacker Mike Jones Jr. in the end zone.
The Tigers trailed by 21 at the time, but they responded to Ohio State’s miscue with a 80-yard touchdown march, a quick sequence that suggested the Buckeyes would not run away with this win so easily.
But on the following series, Fields launched a deep ball to wide receiver Chris Olave, who caught the impeccable 56-yard pass in stride on his way to the end zone.
With 132 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Olave was Fields’s most reliable target, but plenty of others contributed.
Fields delivered another long touchdown strike in the fourth quarter, this time to freshman Jameson Williams for 45 yards.
Tight ends notched three of Ohio State’s touchdown receptions — two from Jeremy Ruckert and one from Luke Farrell.
In the College Football Playoff landscape, a small collection of teams dominate the list of participants.
Justin Fields had no comment for anyone who had Ohio State ranked No. 11. pic.twitter.com/HNuNg7mNsV
— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2021
And because Clemson and Ohio State reside in that upper echelon of title-contending programs, they had met under these circumstances a few times before.
But ever since Ohio State’s 2014 team won the title in the inaugural playoff, Dabo Swinney’s powerhouse program in South Carolina had stood in the way of the Buckeyes’ national title aspirations.
In 2016, the Tigers rolled past the Buckeyes with a 31-0 win in the semifinal, and last season, Ohio State blew a 16-0 lead against Clemson in a game that still tastes bitter to Buckeyes fans.
The semifinal loss hurt, and then motivated, the Ohio State players, who looked at that painful 29-23 final score on a sign in the weight room this offseason.
The previous meeting between these teams ended with a mistake. Fields lifted his hands to his helmet in disbelief after a miscommunication with his receiver led to Clemson’s game-sealing interception.
This edition of the matchup ended with joy for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State’s defense did its part, holding firm against Clemson’s prolific offense, which started the game with an exquisite opening drive.
But after a surge in the second quarter, when Ohio State tallied 229 yards compared with Clemson’s 34, the Tigers spent the rest of the game playing from behind.
— Allstate Sugar Bowl (@SugarBowlNola) January 2, 2021
Clemson’s offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, tested positive for the coronavirus this week and was not available to coach this game.
With limited time to prepare for the switch, passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter called plays during the semifinal.
Ohio State also managed to contain Clemson running back Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher; he finished with 32 rushing yards.
Our Defensive Player of the Game is Ohio State’s Tuf Borland! pic.twitter.com/fMDEyv3BHE
— Allstate Sugar Bowl (@SugarBowlNola) January 2, 2021
This game, regardless of the result, was in many ways precisely what the Buckeyes wanted this season.
They had a chance.
And for a few weeks late this summer, that wasn’t the case.
After the Big Ten canceled its fall season, citing safety concerns about playing during a pandemic, Fields started a petition, pleading with decision-makers to reverse course.
And when Fields participated in a video call with college football players across the country, Lawrence and Clemson running back Darien Rencher also took part in the conversation, which culminated in the #WeWantToPlay movement.
The Big Ten ultimately decided to play, albeit with a shortened and delayed season.
Because of cancellations caused by outbreaks, the Buckeyes only played six games before Friday’s matchup, which sparked debate about whether they were worthy of inclusion in the playoff.
Because of the team’s rocky path to this point, Coach Ryan Day said his program had “an opportunity to write one of the greatest stories in the history of college football.”
The performance of Fields and his teammates Friday proved the Buckeyes belong on this stage, and their impressive performance ensured Ohio State’s story of the season will continue.
OHIO STATE 49 – CLEMSON 28