The third College Football Playoff semifinal matchup between Clemson and Ohio State turned out very differently than the first two. After two losses to the Tigers, the Buckeyes prevailed Friday in the Sugar Bowl 49-28 to set up a showdown with Alabama in the national championship game on Jan. 11.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields outplayed counterpart Trevor Lawrence, throwing for six touchdowns to lead an offensive explosion that left the Clemson defense bewildered.
Unlike last year's matchup, when the Buckeyes led 16-0 late into the second quarter, the Tigers got the early jump this time with Lawrence and Travis Etienne each scoring touchdown runs for a 14-7 lead.
That's when the Buckeyes took over. Fields threw four touchdowns in the first half, the third coming after he left the game when a hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski left him wincing and favoring his right side. Skalski was ejected for targeting.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields runs past Clemson defensive end Justin Mascoll (7) during the 2021 Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (Photo: Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch)
Fields sat out one play and then hit Chris Olave for a 9-yard score. A second scoring pass to Jeremy Ruckert with 11 seconds left in the half was the team's fifth consecutive touchdown drive and sent the Buckeyes to the locker room with a 35-14 advantage.
The domination at halftime was startling. Ohio State outgained Clemson 394 yards to 201. Running back Trey Sermon had 121 yards rushing and 47 yards receiving with one score. Fields was 16 for 18 passing for 223 yards.
Fields, despite noticeably moving slower, hit two long touchdown passes in the second half. His 45-yard strike to Jameson Williams early in the fourth quarter put the Buckeyes ahead 49-21 and there wasn't any drama left.
Fields finished 22-of-28 for 385 yards. Sermon had 254 total yards from scrimmage.
This was likely the final game for Lawrence. The junior couldn't maintain the momentum after his team's fast start. The Tigers only had one first down on its final three possessions of the first half as the defense faltered. He did hit Cornell Powell for a touchdown early in the third quarter to pull his team within 14, but it wasn't his night.
Lawrence had won 34 of his 35 starts in his career with the lone loss coming against LSU in last year's national championship game, also at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Lawrence, who led Clemson to the national title in 2018, is expected to enter the NFL draft and be selected No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Revenge wasn't the only motivation for Ohio State. There was also the story line of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney having voted the Buckeyes 11th on his ballot for the Amway Coaches Poll the Sunday the College Football Playoff pairings were announced.
Ohio State will be heading to the CFP title game for the first time since 2014. That's also the season the Buckeyes last faced Alabama. They knocked off the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl semifinal on their way to winning the national championship against Oregon.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith
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