MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — For two years, one of the most accomplished classes in Ohio State history knew nothing but winning.
The Buckeyes will now enter next season on a different kind of run: a losing streak.
Four second-half turnovers turned what looked like a redeeming victory into another exasperating loss, with the No. 7 Buckeyes falling 40-35 to No. 12 Clemson in Friday night’s Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium.
OSU receiver Corey Brown’s muffed punt return set in motion an unhinged end to a wild night. Clemson went ahead with touchdowns off of back-to-back turnovers, then held off the Buckeyes’ comeback attempts with two more.
After Tajh Boyd’s five-yard touchdown pass to Stanton Seckinger put the Tigers up 40-35 with 6 minutes, 16 seconds left, battered OSU quarterback Braxton Miller was intercepted on the last two drives. Miller — leveled by five sacks and operating with pain he called a 9 on a 1-to-10 scale — and the Buckeyes (12-2) were buried for good when Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony stepped in front of a post pass with less than two minutes left.
“It’s going to sting,” coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s going sting for a while. It was there for us, we didn’t finish.”
In the end, it was Boyd and Clemson over Buckeyes in an expected shootout that played to form — surpassing even the staggering over/under of 70 that Las Vegas had put on the game.
Boyd completed 30 of 39 passes for 370 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 127 yards and another score, receiver Sammy Watkins had a record-setting night, and Clemson piled up 576 yards of offense in its first Orange Bowl win in 32 years.
Miller, a junior playing in perhaps his final college game, threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns and three interceptions. He said afterward he will decide on his future within a week but declined to say which way he is leaning. Carlos Hyde ran for 113 yards and a TD.
Ultimately, time will lend perspective to one of the great runs in school history. The Buckeyes won a school-record 24 straight games before falling to Michigan State in last month’s Big Ten championship game.
“I’m looking around me right now, and I’m going to wake up tomorrow and I’m not going to be these guys’ teammates,” said senior left tackle and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort said inside the Buckeyes’ locker room early Sunday morning. “That’s the hardest part for me right now. ... The relationships mean more to me than anything.”
Still, he called the loss “devastating” — the final chapter of an ill-fated week for OSU.
A gloom hung over the Buckeyes from the moment they deplaned in this sun-splashed state.
The flu bug that swept through the team. Sacks leader Noah Spence’s three-game suspension for a Big Ten violation. Lockdown cornerback Bradley Roby watching his final college game in sweats.
What else could go wrong?
Turns out, a lot. At least in the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad, and ultimately satisfying first half for the Buckeyes.
A defense short three starters from an already wobbly bunch offered little pushback early.
Clemson needed the ball for less than three minutes to pile up 150 yards and 14 points. Boyd knifed through the heart of OSU’s defense for a 48-yard TD run — the longest of his career by 21 yards — on the sixth play from scrimmage, then found Watkins four plays later for a 34-yard score.
OSU’s offense, too, showed little life, stalling on three of its first four drives. Even a usually stalwart offensive line allowed three first-half sacks.
But almost inexplicably, despite being outgained 362-254 in total yardage, the Buckeyes took a 22-20 lead into halftime.
Trailing 20-9, the Buckeyes rallied for 20 unanswered points — including back-to-back scores to close the half. Miller threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to an open Jeff Heuerman, then ran for a three-yard score with 12 seconds left.
The momentum only continued after intermission, nudged along by Hyde’s 32-yard run to the Clemson 1 on 4th-and-1 — just the type of up-the-gut punch many clamored for on a failed late conversion against Michigan State last month. Hyde ran it in on the next play to push OSU ahead 29-20.
It was all setting up for OSU, only for the night to take another detour. Consecutive Buckeyes turnovers deep in their own territory handed the lead right back to Clemson, with Brown’s one mishap on a night in which he had 116 yards receiving giving the Tigers life. Brown attempted to spin out of traffic as he fielded the ball, but never secured the ball and Clemson recovered at the OSU 30.
“That was a big part of ... Philly is one of those guys that I’d rather not do that,” Meyer said. “He’s one of those skilled athletes and he really wanted to make a game-changing attempt to do something. He’s not coached to do that. We’re not playing the blame game, guys. That was a big play, though.”
Said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “That was the spark we needed.”
The play gave way to another long touchdown connection from Boyd to Watkins — who set an Orange Bowl-record with 16 catches for 227 yards and two TDs — while Miller’s interception at the OSU 38 on the ensuing possession led to the Tigers’ go-ahead score.
Boyd threw a three-yard touchdown catch to Martavis Bryant.
Yet OSU withstood the punch, and the two sides swapped scores. Miller threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to put the Buckeyes ahead 35-34 early in the fourth quarter, while Clemson answered with a 13-play, 75-yard go-ahead drive.