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Lawrence, Etienne lead Clemson Tigers to Fiesta Bowl win over OSU

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Dabo Swinney and Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers celebrate their teams 29-23 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.

Clawing their way back from an early deficit, the No. 3 Clemson Tigers responded in a big way Saturday night, knocking off the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes 29-23 in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl.

“That had to be a great game to watch, I’ll tell you,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “Unbelievable performance, what a night, what a journey for our team, what a way to end a great decade tonight.

“Unbelievable decade we just finished up and just really proud of our guys, proud of our seniors. They got their 55th win tonight, that ties a college football record and just the resiliency and the heart and the character is just special.”

Behind the arm of sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and the hands and legs of junior running back Travis Etienne, the Tigers stole the show right out from under the Buckeyes’ noses.

But while the Tigers punched their ticket to the National Championship, it was the Buckeyes who looked like the superior team for most of the first half at State Farm Stadium.

Scoring on four of their first five possessions of the tilt, Ohio State had little trouble moving the chains.

The other side of the field? Not so much.

After Ohio State capped off their opening drive with a 21-yard field goal, Clemson got the chance to quiet the Buckeye fans in attendance. Putting together a respectable drive of their own, the Tigers drove down with an opportunity to tie with a 49-yard field goal try.

The snap was good, but the kick was not, sailing wide right and giving Ohio State an added shot of adrenaline.

Then running back J.K. Dobbins happened.

Needing just one play from scrimmage, Dobbins made Clemson pay for the missed FG and advantageous field position, rumbling for a 68-yard touchdown, and silencing the Tigers and the sea of orange in the stands.

Add in two more Ohio State field goals and just like that it was 16-0 in favor of the Buckeyes.

Ohio State clearly controlled the game, the momentum and the line of scrimmage. But even with the dominant showing, the Buckeyes only held a two-score lead through nearly the first half.

Keyword, nearly.

With 7:20 left to go in the half, the Tigers offense took over desperately needing something to stop the bleeding. A crucial targeting penalty and almost five minutes off the clock later, Clemson strung together its best drive of the day with a 75-yard, 10-play possession. Unlike the first drive, the team came away with points as Etienne found the end zone on the eight-yard run.

“We knew we had to score there,” Lawrence said. “The game was getting a little out of hand. Just had to put a drive together, and we can take anything we can get. That targeting call was huge. Being able to finish that drive and score and then the next drive put it in again really gave us some momentum going into halftime.”

The hit may have hurt — Lawrence was slow to get up — but the targeting call seemed to flip the switch for the Tigers in a big way.

After finding pay dirt on offense, the defense picked up its play, forcing a three-and-out with just under a minute to play. Turning to Lawrence, the team got into their hurry-up offense with enough time to add to the score.

After proving ineffective through the air, Lawrence decided to turn on the afterburners and take it himself, bursting out of the backfield for a 67-yard score. The run marked the longest of Lawrence’s career and the longest touchdown run from a Tiger quarterback in the last 15 years. Above all else, it meant the Tigers were back in business.

While it was the Tigers who looked out of sorts to start the game, it was the Buckeyes who were reeling after giving up 14 unanswered points to start the second half.

Despite pinning Clemson on its own one-yard line, Ohio State did not have an answer for the duo of Lawrence and Etienne. After connecting on his first three passes of the drive, Lawrence went for the killshot on his fifth attempt, finding the RB for the 53-yard TD.

And just like that, the scoreboard read 21-16, Clemson.

“It is just the DNA. It is our program. It’s not just this season,” Swinney said when asked about overcoming the adversity from earlier in the game. “That’s just how we’re built. One of the things I told them at the half, I thought we took their best punch. I don’t think we could have played worse, but we took their best punch, and it was 16-14.”

They may have looked cooked on the scoring drive, but the Buckeyes weren’t fully fried.

Completing seven of his first eight passes to start the fourth quarter, Ohio State sophomore QB Justin Fields provided a spark for a team quickly losing its grasp on the game. Getting down into Clemson territory, Fields capitalized on the drive, connecting with sophomore Chris Olave for the 23-yard TD and handing Ohio State a 23-21 lead.

Two punts and more than 10 minutes off the clock later, it was on Lawrence to drive his team 94 yards down the field with just over a minute to play.

Challenge accepted.

With the 71,330 in attendance on their feet, Lawrence and the Tigers strategically moved down the field. In their biggest drive of the evening, Clemson needed just four plays to find pay dirt as the QB seamlessly moved the chains before finding Etienne for the 34-yard TD strike.

Etienne was head and shoulders Lawrence’s favorite target Saturday, hooking up with the QB for 98 yards and two scores, while also adding another 36 yards and a TD on 10 carries. Lawrence finished the night totaling three scores, two through the air and one on the ground, to go along with 259 yards passing and 107 yards rushing.

“I wrote two things down on my call sheet this morning,” Swinney said. “Quarterback run and running back pass … so it’s just amazing how it all came together like I hoped it would.”

The Tigers held a 29-23 lead after the successful two-point try, but even then still had to deal with Fields and the Buckeyes offense one last time.

Knowing it needed a touchdown to win the game, Ohio State put the ball in Fields’ hands. Finding the open man, Fields moved the Buckeyes from their own 25-yard line to the Tigers’ 23-yard line with 43 seconds and a full set of downs to work with.

Looking for it all on second down, Fields dropped back to pass with an eye on a cutting Olave in the end zone. But just as it looked like Ohio State had the play to send them to the National Championship, Olave made one cut too many, stumbling to the groundd instead of continuing his route. Looking to connect in the right side of the end zone, Fields let it fly, only to find the waiting junior safety Nolan Turner for the interception.

“Just really proud of our team, especially the 94-yard drive to win it,” Swinney said. “Defense getting the stop to set it up and then Nolan Turner finishing it. He gave up the big fourth-down touchdown. And for him to come back and make the game winner was awesome. Unbelievable night.”

Up next, Clemson takes on the LSU Tigers for the National Championship on Jan. 13 in New Orleans.