Ohio State coach Ryan Day did not blame several controversial replay calls that went against his team in a 29-23 loss to Clemson on Saturday in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
But he was not happy about those decisions, either.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was clearly upset, but he declined to comment on specific calls when asked by ESPN.
Two notable calls stood out: a targeting call on cornerback Shaun Wade that was made in the replay booth in the first half, and an Ohio State scoop-and-score fumble that was overturned in the booth in the third quarter.
“We played hard, we played bold, but certainly were a lot of plays in that game that didn’t go our way and [are] very hard to swallow right now,” Day said. “Gonna have to really take a look at the film and figure out what really happened on some of those plays. Because in a game like this, where the margin of error is so tiny, one play can alter the game, and didn’t seem like we got any of those plays.”
On the targeting play, Wade appeared to lower his helmet and hit Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the crown of the helmet in the second quarter. The officials didn’t call targeting on the field, but the replay booth decided to review the play and determined that targeting had occurred. Wade was ejected from the game.
Referee Kevin Williamson stood behind the call, telling a pool reporter, “This was a crown-of-the-helmet targeting foul. Initial contact was with the crown of the helmet. Then he wrapped up for the tackle. So at that point, targeting was properly called.”
But the play happened on third down, when Clemson would have been forced to punt. Instead, Ohio State was penalized 15 yards and Clemson got a first down. Two plays later, Lawrence threw deep for Justyn Ross and Ohio State cornerback Amir Riep was flagged for a pass interference. Clemson scored three plays later to close the gap to 16-7.
Wade was not made available for comment after the game.
“It’s tough,” Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller said. “Especially because it was on third down and we were about to get off the field, and they get a first down off that and they get a PI right after. Just completely shifted momentum at that point.”
Clemson went on to score 21 straight points after the targeting call to take its first lead of the game. Then in the third quarter, with the Buckeyes down 21-16, momentum appeared to shift back to Ohio State. Lawrence threw for Ross, and Jeff Okudah appeared to force a fumble. Fuller scooped it up and scored a touchdown. But replay officials overturned the call, taking the touchdown off the board.
An SEC officiating crew worked the game.
Williams also stood behind the overturned fumble, saying, “After the video, instant replay in the stadium as well as back at the video center, they both looked at it slow and fast and they determined when he moved, the ball was becoming loose in his hands and he did not complete the process of the catch.”
That was little consolation to Day.
“I’m probably too emotional to really talk about those, but we’ll have to look at the film and see what that was,” Day said. “I know there were some plays that were called on the field and were overturned, and when they overturn it, there has to be indisputable evidence if that’s what they deemed it was. It’s going to be something we’re gonna have to take a look at.
“The thing about those plays are, certainly the catch that was returned for a touchdown was such a huge play in the game. … Not crying about it, but at the same time those were big plays that didn’t go our way, and [there are] a range of emotions about that.”
Fuller said he looked up at the video board during the replay review and thought Ross fumbled.
“I’m not paid to be a ref, but it looked like he caught it to me, but I’m not paid to do that, I’m not even paid to play yet,” Fuller said.
Asked whether he was surprised the play got overturned, Fuller said no.
“I wasn’t really stunned. Just the way the game was going, it felt like momentum,” Fuller said.
Despite what Ohio State perceived to be questionable calls, the Buckeyes had one final chance to win, driving to the Clemson 23 with 43 seconds remaining. Justin Fields threw into the end zone, but a miscommunication with receiver Chris Olave led to Nolan Turner’s game-sealing interception.
“It was my fault,” Olave said. “I was supposed to run a post, but I thought he was scrambling, so I tried to work the second part of the route, but it ended up he wasn’t scrambling. He trusted me to run that post, and I didn’t, so it’s a mistake on me.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world. Being the target on the last play and having it being a pick is tough. I feel like I let the seniors down and my team down.”
There were plenty of other missed opportunities, too. In three trips to the red zone in the first half, Ohio State settled for three field goals. J.K. Dobbins dropped a pass that would almost certainly have led to a touchdown. Ohio State was called for roughing the kicker on a punt, leading to another Clemson score. On one of the red zone trips that ended with a field goal, Ohio State had a Dobbins touchdown catch called on the field overturned by replay, which showed he trapped the ball on the ground.
“I just know when two great teams get together, it comes down to a few plays,” Day said. “It did again tonight. This was a very strange game. I thought our guys played really well. They have a really good team, and they’re the defending national champs. But I’m very, very disappointed we weren’t able to win this game.”