By RALPH D. RUSSO
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Numbers have fueled Ohio State all year.
There was 29-23, the score of last season’s painful playoff loss to Clemson.
Six, the number of games the Buckeyes played in this pandemic-altered season, which a lot of people thought was too few for them to deserve a return trip to the College Football Playoff.
Then there was No. 11, where Clemson coach Dabo Swinney placed Ohio State on his ballot in the final regular-season coaches’ poll.
In a rematch with Swinney’s Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, Justin Fields and the Buckeyes had Clemson’s number.
Fields threw six touchdown passes to outshine Trevor Lawrence, and No. 3 Ohio State buried the second-ranked Tigers 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal Friday night.
“Everybody doubting us just pushed us a little more,” Fields said.
The Buckeyes (7-0) head to the CFP title game for the first time since the inaugural playoff to face No. 1 Alabama on Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida. Ohio State beat the Crimson Tide in the semifinals on the way to the 2014 national championship.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day called it a statement game for the program.
“I think this performance, not only by Justin, but this team, hopefully will go down in Ohio State history as a landmark game,” Day said. “Because we want to go on to win the national championship. But there was a lot of tough days, a lot of tough days over the last six months.”
In a matchup of quarterback prodigies from Georgia, Fields might have given the Jacksonville Jaguars something to think about with that first pick in the NFL draft. Lawrence is the presumptive No. 1, but Fields outplayed him on this night, going 22 of 28 for 385 yards. He set a Sugar Bowl record for TD passes and did it playing more than half the game after taking a vicious shot to the side that forced him to miss a play and spend time in the medical tent.
Lawrence was 33 of 48 for 400 yards and three total touchdowns in what is expected to be the junior’s final college game.
“We were confident and prepared,” he said. ”This was just one of those nights.”
Lawrence’s final pass was intercepted, but Clemson (10-2) finished 34-2 in his starts and won a national title when he was a freshman.
The third meeting between Clemson and Ohio State in the playoff, and fourth bowl matchup since the 2013 season — all Clemson wins — was a game the Buckeyes had been pointing toward ever since that 29-23 loss in the Fiesta Bowl last year.
That score was everywhere the Buckeyes turned in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus the past year.
A chance for revenge was nearly derailed when the Big Ten canceled fall football in August because of the pandemic. An abbreviated Big Ten season caused more headaches, with the Buckeyes having three games canceled because of COVID-19 issues, including their own outbreak.
The playoff committee still liked Ohio State enough to put the Buckeyes in the final four, despite much griping from various parts of the country, including Clemson.
Day talked all week about what a remarkable story it would be for the Buckeyes to endure the rollercoaster season and still reach their goal.
“It’s been an emotional season,” Day said, “and to come back and have a chance to play Clemson and then win the way we did — unbelievable.”
Clemson took a 14-7 lead in the first quarter with Lawrence and Travis Etienne running for scores.
From there it was all Buckeyes. Fields threw touchdown passes to tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert to give Ohio State a 21-14 lead early in the second.
Operating without offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who did not make the trip while in COVID-19 protocol, the Clemson offense couldn’t respond. The Buckeyes kept rolling behind Fields, though not without a major scare.
Fields scrambled on a third-and-long and took a hard shot to the right side from Clemson linebacker James Skalski that put the Buckeyes star into a fetal position before rolling over onto his back in obvious pain.
The play was reviewed for a targeting foul that resulted in Clemson’s top linebacker being ejected and a first-and-goal for the Buckeyes.
Fields came out for one play and returned to immediately throw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave that made it 28-14.
“My body’s pretty beat up, but I’m happy,” Fields said. “I know I’m going to be feeling it tomorrow, but it was worth it.”
Fields went to the injury tent with Ohio State medical staff on Clemson’s next possession. He said afterward he got a shot for the pain, but it still hurt after almost every throw.
He was right back out there on the next Buckeyes drive. Fields moved gingerly, but with Trey Sermon running hard and the line providing good protection, Fields continued to carve up the Tigers.
He hit Ruckert for a 12-yard score with 11 seconds left in the half.
A year after blowing a 16-0 first-half lead to Clemson, the Buckeyes handed the Tigers their largest halftime deficit (21) since the 2012 Orange Bowl against West Virginia (29 points).
The second half started with Clemson looking as though it might have another comeback in store. Fields was intercepted in the Tigers’ end zone and Lawrence came back with a touchdown pass.
Nervous time for the Buckeyes? Not for long. Fields threw a perfectly placed bomb to Olave for a 56-yard touchdown pass that made it 42-21 with 4:55 left in the third quarter.
“They were awesome,” Swinney said. “They absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage. You can’t win games like this if you can’t stop the run and big plays.”
Ohio State: Sermon followed up his school-record 331 yards rushing in the Big Ten championship game with 193 on the ground and another 61 receiving. The Oklahoma transfer is having a late-season breakout similar to Ezekiel Elliott’s in 2014.
Clemson: Swinney complained about Ohio State’s six-game schedule, saying it might even give the Buckeyes an unfair advantage in the playoff. Yes, he said the Buckeyes were good enough to beat the Tigers, but he placed Ohio State 11th on his coaches’ poll ballot just the same. It was nothing personal, Swinney said, but the Buckeyes sure looked as if they took it that way.
“No, I don’t regret any of that and the poll had nothing to do with motivation,” Swinney said.
Only a few thousand fans were permitted in the Superdome because of COVID-19 restrictions. The thousand or so on the Buckeyes’ side of the field derisively chanted “Daaa-boooo! Daaa-boooo!” as the clock wound down on Clemson’s season.
The Buckeyes were without second-leading rusher Master Teague, starting guard Harry Miller and two defensive ends in Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison. Ohio State did not give details about their absences, but all four had played in the Big Ten championship two weeks ago.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes will make their second appearance in the College Football Playoff championship game. They beat Oregon to win the 2014 national title.
Clemson: The Tigers open next season with a doozy of a nonconference game against Georgia in Charlotte.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/