7 plays - and decisions - that cost Ohio State a national championship bid
Christian Petersen / Getty Images

For 23 minutes, Ohio State was the best team in the country. The Buckeyes drove at will against the defending national champion, scoring on four of their first five possessions. They stymied Clemson's offense, forcing three consecutive punts. It looked like the Tigers' 28-game winning streak would end in epic fashion.

But Ohio State only had a two-score lead to show for a quarter-and-a-half of domination. Small mistakes early loomed larger late, as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence led his team on a 94-yard drive to give the Tigers a 29-23 win in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. Clemson will play for its third national championship in four years against LSU on Jan. 13 in New Orleans.

For Ohio State and its fan base, this one will sting for a long time. If any one of seven plays goes the Buckeyes' way, the result could have been different. Instead, they lost their first game of the season and must endure an offseason of what-if questions.

Here are those seven plays (and decisions) that swung Saturday's game.

14:14, second quarter: Dobbins' first drop

Ohio State led 10-0 after one quarter and entered the second 8 yards away from taking a three-score lead.

Two plays later, on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Justin Fields found an open J.K. Dobbins to his right for what appeared to be a touchdown. Upon review, though, Dobbins wasn't able to complete the catch as he fell to the turf in the end zone.

With the touchdown overturned, Ohio State settled for a field goal. Clemson avoided a three-possession deficit that could have elicited panic.

7:31, second quarter: Dobbins' second drop

Overall, Dobbins had a terrific game. He rushed for 174 yards and a score and caught six passes, all while playing on what appeared to be an injured ankle.

But with Ohio State again threatening to go up three scores, he dropped what could have been a walk-in touchdown.

The Buckeyes were once again forced to settle for a field goal, which brought the lead to 16-0. Ohio State kicked field goals on all three of its red-zone possessions Saturday. Entering the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes scored touchdowns on 81.9% (59 of 72) of their red-zone possessions, the third-best mark in the country.

4:47, second quarter: Wade ejected

Ohio State's defense limited opponents to a 28.7% conversion rate on third downs in the regular season, which ranked fourth nationally. Clemson was about to begin the game 3-for-8, but on the ensuing possession after Ohio State took the 16-0 lead, Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade made a clean run at Lawrence and hit him hard for a sack.

Officials reviewed the play and flagged Wade for targeting. The penalty gave Clemson 15 yards and a first down - and led to Wade's ejection.

With a fresh set of downs, Clemson's offense came to life. Travis Etienne soon scored the Tigers' first touchdown. The call was hotly debated, but there's no denying Wade's ejection was the turning point of the first half.

8:29, third quarter: Roughing the punter

Another personal foul helped changed the game: an early third-quarter roughing the kicker penalty against Ohio State's Cameron Brown.

The Buckeyes, leading 16-14, were going to get good field position after forcing Clemson to punt from its own 15. However, Tigers punter Will Spiers was clearly upended as he got the punt off.

Clemson was handed possession at its own 30. Two plays later, Lawrence swung a pass Etienne's way, and the speedy running back took it 53 yards to give the Tigers their first lead.

4:53, third quarter: Fumble or no fumble?

The most controversial play of the game:

Clemson led 21-16 but faced a third-and-19 when Lawrence fired a pass Justyn Ross' way. With Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah draped around him, Ross took a few steps while attempting to bring the football in toward his body. But before he could tuck it away, the football came loose.

Buckeyes safety Jordan Fuller scooped it and returned it for a touchdown to give his team the lead. That is until the call was overturned upon further review.

It will go down as 2019's biggest catch-or-no-catch debate. Veteran referee Terry McAulay, who assists NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast, tweeted there was "no way" the call on the field should have been reversed via replay because there was no indisputable evidence. Yet Clemson dodged a massive mistake and was able to punt the football deep on the next play.

3:07, fourth quarter: Punting in Clemson territory

With a slim lead and the game on the line, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day decided to trust his defense.

The Buckeyes led 23-21 when they faced a fourth-and-4 from the Clemson 39-yard line. Despite a 61.5% success rate (8-of-13) on fourth downs this season - including a fourth-and-1 call that led to a TD earlier in Saturday's game - Day elected to take the football out of Fields' hands and try to pin Clemson's offense deep. Punter Drue Chrisman did punt the ball inside the 10-yard line, but it didn't matter. Lawrence led Clemson 94 yards on four plays to score what would be the game-winning touchdown.

What if Ohio State went for the first down and picked up the 4 yards it needed? The Buckeyes would have neared field-goal range, but more importantly, they would have been able to drain the clock while forcing Clemson to use all its timeouts.

0:37, fourth quarter: An interception to end the season

It was a miscommunication at the worst possible time.

Trailing by six, Ohio State drove to Clemson's 23-yard line in the final minute. Facing a second-and-7, Fields dropped back to throw, looking toward the end zone and his top receiver, Chris Olave.

But at the moment Fields stepped forward to throw over the middle, Olave turned to cut outside. He told reporters postgame that he thought Fields was going to scramble, so he pivoted to get open.

Fields' pass, then, spiraled toward just one target: Clemson safety Nolan Turner.

It was the final mishap in a game full of them.

Ohio State had every opportunity to dethrone the champion - and that will be what hurts the most in the months to come.

7 plays - and decisions - that cost Ohio State a national championship bid
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox