A group of Clemson fans traveling on the rental car shuttle to Sky Harbor International Airport on Sunday marveled at the ease of their trip back to their hotel Saturday night.
There was no traffic, they said, because fans of the Ohio State Buckeyes left University of Phoenix Stadium early, maybe to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends and family but probably to escape the scene of one of the worst losses in school history. By the time Clemson played dumped a bucket of Gatorade on coach Dabo Swinney in the final moments of a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl victory, the stadium was maybe a quarter full.
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Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes didn’t have the luxury of fleeing the scene before the confetti fell and Clemson ascended a stage to hoist the trophy and celebrate its second straight appearance in the national championship game. The No. 2 Tigers (13-1) will play No. 1 Alabama (14-0) on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla., in a rematch of the 2016 title game.
“That’s a tough night for Ohio State,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “but you can’t let one game define your season. Ohio State is an incredible team. They’ve got a lot of young players, coach Meyer will be the first one to tell you. They’re a great football team. But tonight was just our night. Our guys were prepared. They were ready. They seized the moment. They capitalized on the momentum. And (Ohio State) just didn’t really have an answer. But you don’t make it to the final four without being a great team. I don’t have any doubt they’ll probably be right back here next year with the type of talent and coaching staff that they have.”
Ohio State finished the season 11-2 and will spend all offseason answering questions about this game.
“I had a group of players that played their tail off,” Meyer said. “The same group of guys went to Norman, Okla., and won, and went to Madison, Wisc., and won in overtime, and then against our rivals (Michigan) won in two overtimes. We got beat, so we’re going to move on quickly. My respect for our team has not changed. We will identify things that have to get better. That’s what we do.”
It will take a long time for the Buckeyes to erase these sad facts:
• Ohio State suffered its first shutout since Nov. 20, 1993 (28-0 to Michigan). It had scored in 295 straight games.
• Meyer suffered the first shutout of his career. His record stands at 165-29 and 61-6 after five seasons at Ohio State.
• Ohio State was blanked in a bowl for the first time since Jan. 1, 1921, when it lost 28-0 to California in the Rose Bowl.
• The 31-point margin fell four points short of the total margin of defeat in Meyer’s five previous losses at Ohio State.
If there was a silver lining for the the Buckeyes on New Year’s Day, it’s that 2016 season will be the opposite of the 2017 season in that they will lose few players to the NFL, at least compared to last year. Safety Malik Hooker, hybrid back Curtis Samuel, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, lineback Raekwon McMillan, defensive end Tyquan Lewis and cornerback Gareon Conley are the players most likely to leave.
Several Buckeyes announced after the game they will return. One of those was guard Billy Price, who’s expected to move to center and follow the path of departing senior Pat Elflein, who made the same move a year ago.
“In times of hardship, this is when you begin to grow,” Price said. “We’ll start offseason training, and this is going to be a burning feeling in my stomach. I didn’t do enough to win tonight. It’s fourth-and-1 toward the end, and I missed a block. That’s on me. As a leader and a veteran, that’s unacceptable.”
The Buckeyes also likely will return quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will be a fifth-year senior in 2017. He hasn’t officially announced his return but hinted he’ll be back Saturday.
“My main focus was to focus on this year,” Barrett said. “I didn’t really give it that much thought, but it will be really hard for me to walk away when we just lost 31-0.”
Barrett completed 19 of 33 passes for 127 yards with two interceptions. He was sacked three times. He carried 11 times for a loss of two yards.
The Buckeyes had a chance to grab the early momentum after Conley picked off Deshaun Watson’s first pass. Tyler Durbin missed a 47-yard field goal. He missed a kick from the same distance on Ohio State’s next drive.
The Buckeyes never recovered. Clemson had 11 tackles for a loss and broke up five passes. Ohio State’s receivers had countless drops.
“I think it was just unfortunate things kept on continuing to happen, especially our offense,” Barrett said. ” We didn’t help our defense at all. I mean we had the game at was 10-0 for the longest time. We just couldn’t get sustained drives and keep them off the field. We didn’t play at our best obviously, and that’s what happens when you go against a good team and you’re not nine strong. You lose.”