Sugar Bowl was still the Sugar Bowl despite COVID effects

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Ohio State 2021 Sugar Bowl
(Photo: Parker Waters)

NEW ORLEANS – It was New Year’s night.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl was being played inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – just like always.

Even though it was the first day of 2021, it still had a 2020 feel to it as No. 3 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Clemson 49-28 in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

Late in the afternoon, the Central Business District was virtually devoid of fans of the two teams walking from the French Quarter to the Superdome.

The absence of orange-clad and red-clad fans was just as jarring inside the building, which would have been rocking with some 75,000 fans and both schools’ marching bands, mascots and cheerleaders.

But COVID restrictions limited the number of spectators to 3,000.

The Buckeyes’ band did perform its traditional spelling out of Ohio State and dotting of the “I” via remote from Ohio Stadium.

The traditional elements of the Sugar Bowl atmosphere were either missing or replaced by ersatz versions.

But it was still the Sugar Bowl.

It still matched two elite teams from elite programs in elite conferences.

It still featured high stakes – a trip to the CFP championship on Jan. 11 against No. 1 Alabama, which beat No. 4 Notre Dame 31-14 in the other semifinal earlier in the day.

It featured two of top quarterbacks in the country in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

The ACC champion Tigers (10-1) were a touchdown favorite over the Big Ten champion Buckeyes (6-0).

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had raised some eyebrows by voting Ohio State No. 11 on his coaches poll ballot.

He defended the ranking earlier this week, pointing out that the Buckeyes didn’t reach his personal threshold of nine games played to qualify for a top 10 spot.

It had been 354 days since Lawrence had suffered the only previous loss of his three-year career in a 42-25 setback to LSU in the same building in last season’s CFP Championship Game.

That LSU team has a case as the best team in college football history and yet Clemson seemed more competitive in that game than it did in the one Friday night.

The lopsided nature of the outcome didn’t prevent this game and the unique circumstances under which it was played from fitting in with Sugar Bowl tradition.

The game didn’t feature the down-to-the-wire drama of Notre Dame’s 24-23 victory against Alabama in Tulane Stadium on Dec. 31, 1973, but the outcome did give the Buckeyes an opportunity to become the 29th national champion to have been hosted by the Sugar Bowl.

The Buckeyes didn’t match the 659 yards that Florida gained against Cincinnati on Jan. 1, 2010, but they only missed by 20.

Fields didn’t match Tim Tebow’s 482 passing yards in that game against Cincinnati, but he did pass for 385. He didn’t match the 32 completions that Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight had against Alabama on Jan. 2, 2014, but he did throw 22 completions in 28 attempts.

He also threw six touchdown passes, breaking by two the previous record shared by four quarterbacks.

Trey Sermon didn’t match the 230 yards that former Buckeye Ezekiel Elliott rushed for against Alabama on Jan. 1, 2015, but he did rush for 193 yards and a touchdown.

Chris Olave didn’t match the 239 receiving yards that LSU’s Josh Reed had against Illinois on Jan. 1, 2002, but he did have 132 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

The Buckeyes played one of the most prolific offensive first halves in the Sugar Bowl’s 87-game history.

Fields was nearly perfect, completing 16 of 18 for 223 yards and four touchdowns as Ohio State rolled to a 35-14 halftime lead. The Buckeyes also ran for 171 yards on 24 carries, gained 18 first downs and possessed the ball for 18 minutes and 36 seconds while accumulating 394 yards.

They appeared headed to yet another score on the first possession of the third quarter, but a Fields pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Mike Jones Jr. in the end zone.

That seemed to perk up the Tigers, who drove 80 yards and pulled within two touchdowns when Lawrence threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Cornell Powell.

Ohio State didn’t blink.

A poor decision on the ensuing kickoff had the Buckeyes starting at their nine, where they soon faced a third-and-10.

Fields dumped the ball off the Sermon, who easily gained 14 yards, and four plays later Fields threw a perfect deep ball to Olave for a 56-yard touchdown.

The Buckeyes rolled into the fourth quarter with a 42-21 lead.

Just 57 seconds into the final period, Fields threw a 45-yard touchdown to Jameson Williams before Lawrence added a 26-yard touchdown pass to Powell to make the margin slightly less than it could have been.

The Clemson offense had no trouble overcoming the absence of offensive coordinator Tony Elliott on the game’s first possession.

Elliott didn’t make the trip to New Orleans after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. Passing game coordinator Brandon Street replaced Elliott in the coaches booth and helped Swinney with play calls.

Lawrence completed an 82-yard drive by rushing two yards for a touchdown.

The Buckeyes tied the score when Sermon ran two yards to complete a three-play, 77-yard touchdown drive later in the quarter.

Clemson answered on the ensuing possession as Jennings, Louisiana native Travis Etienne ran three yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

Then Fields took over.

He threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Luke Farrell, then a 17-yard touchdown to Jeremy Ruckert, a nine-yarder to Olave and a 12-yarder to Ruckert.

At that point the football stuff was pretty well decided.

In the absence of the school bands, the halftime entertainment was Trombone Shorty introducing video performances by New Orleans legends Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint.

It was one accommodation to COVID-19 that felt natural.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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