Urban Meyer’s teams at Ohio State have been so good, that any off night is a shock to the system.
But Saturday night’s no-show performance in the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t just an off night. It was hands down the worst game the Buckeyes have played since Meyer took over as head coach ahead of the 2012 season. It was the perhaps the worst game a Meyer team has ever had, as he lost in a shutout for the first time in his head-coaching career.
Ohio State’s offense did practically nothing against a ferocious Clemson defense in what ended up a 31-0 rout in the College Football Playoff semifinal. The Buckeyes amassed just 215 total yards and rushed for only 88 yards, a shocking development considering they entered as one of the top-10 rushing teams in the country.
It was just the sixth loss of the Meyer Era but the biggest margin of defeat, eclipsing the 14-point loss at Virginia Tech during the championship season in 2014.
Program-wise, it was the first time the Buckeyes were shut out since losing to Michigan in 1993 and the team’s first shutout loss in a bowl game since the 1920 Rose Bowl.
The win advanced Clemson to take on Alabama in the national title game, a rematch of last season’s championship bout, which the Crimson Tide won.
It was also a repeat in the sense of the Big Ten’s performance in the Playoff. Last season, Michigan State was thrashed 38-0 by eventual-champion Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. This season, it was Ohio State that couldn’t muster a point in a national semifinal. It’s been a sorry two years for the conference in the sport’s championship event, with back-to-back shutouts coming by a combined 69-0 score in the two seasons following the Buckeyes’ national title to cap the 2014 campaign.
Ohio State never got going in this one, totaling a mere 88 yards in the first half only eight of which came on the ground. Despite being unable to move the ball, Ohio State’s other phases gifted the offense with fantastic field position early. Gareon Conley intercepted Deshaun Watson to put the Buckeyes inside the 35, and Parris Campbell had a big kick return to set them up inside the 45. But both possessions ended in kicker Tyler Durbin missing 47-yard field-goal tries.
Though he threw two first-half interceptions, Watson accounted for both of Clemson’s touchdowns in the first half. He rushed in from one yard out for the first in the first quarter and in the second quarter pitched a 30-yard pass to C.J. Fuller, who made a terrific catch falling down in the end zone to make it 17-0.
The Buckeyes’ defense stepped up a bit coming out of halftime. After Ohio State running back Mike Weber fumbled on his second carry of the game early in the third quarter, the Buckeyes’ defense turned in a goal-line stand and gave brief hope of a turning point when Clemson missed a field goal.
But the Ohio State offense remained absent throughout the second half, turning the ball over three times to go along with a punt and a turnover on downs. Weber’s fumble was teamed with two Barrett interceptions to make a horrendous night even worse. Curtis Samuel had a 64-yard run to account for the majority of the Buckeyes’ second-half yardage, but even that play couldn’t lead to any points.
Watson meanwhile engineered two more scoring drives after halftime. He capped the first of those with his second touchdown rush of the game, and Wayne Gallman ran in for an easy score to make it a 31-0 mauling in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of maulings, the Clemson defensive line was sensational, breaking through the Ohio State offensive line on a near-constant basis and recording 11 tackles for loss on the night and three sacks of Barrett.
In the end, Ohio State’s offensive nightmare looked like this on the stat sheet: 215 total yards and just nine first downs.
The Buckeyes’ defense played as well as it could have under the circumstances. It came away with a pair of turnovers and forced plenty of punts. But the ineptitude of the offense sent the defense back out on the field over and over again throughout the night, and it just got gassed as the second half progressed. Clemson finished with 470 total yards, Watson accounting for 316 of those throwing and running plus three of the Tigers’ touchdowns.
There’s plenty of positives to look at from the season as a whole for the Buckeyes, who had one of the youngest teams in the country and still reached the Playoff with a terrific 11 wins. The vast majority of this roster — which is obviously chock full of talent — will be back next season, including Barrett, who will be a redshirt senior in his fourth season as a starting quarterback.
But those positives are hard to take comfort in on the night of the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, the worst game of the Meyer Era.