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Gareon Conley will be Ohio State’s most important defensive player against Clemson

The Tigers can murder teams through the air. Does the Buckeyes’ No. 1 have what it takes to stop them?

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been plenty of ink spilled and column inches filled regarding the absurd talents of Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, and rightly so. The Tigers’ standout signal-caller has had a ridiculous season, one deserving of his recent Heisman runner-up status.

The good news for Watson—and bad news for Buckeye fans--is that he didn’t achieve his stat line all alone. Clemson has a stacked wide receiver corps, and (by the numbers) the second-best overall offense that Ohio State has faced all year. Ohio State is going to be hard-pressed to keep up with all of the weapons that Watson has at his disposal, even with one of the best secondaries in the country.

The stats

Name: Gareon Conley

Number: 8

Position: CB

Year: Junior

Height: 6’0

Weight: 195

Stat line: 18 tackles, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups

You don’t become the No. 1 corner on one of the best defenses in the country by being a slouch. Gareon Conley has been solid for the Buckeyes all year, helping shut down the likes of Dede Westbrook and Amara Darboh en route to an 11-1 regular season for Ohio State.

Conley has a strong complement of defensive backs around him—they’re not the fifth-ranked passing defense in the country for nothing—but he’s played his tail off individually, too. The Buckeyes rely on him to work against opponents’ best receivers on the perimeter and often fly solo without safety help over the top. He’s risen to the challenge, reeling in three interceptions and knocking away eight passes during the regular season. His big moments have come at opportune times, too: one of those picks effectively ended the Michigan State game and let the Buckeyes squeak out a win against a lousy opponent.

Opposition research

Conley will have his hands full when Ohio State faces Clemson on New Year’s Eve. The Tigers’ biggest threat (though there are many) is Mike Williams, the kind of receiver who looks like a can’t-miss NFL prospect. As my colleague Chris Jason observed:

What makes Williams stand out from the rest of the receivers in college football, is his physicality. He is legitimately a man amongst boys on the perimeter. Of his 85 receptions, 14 of those were contested by the defensive back. To give context, Jordan Leggette has the second most contested receptions with 5. Deshaun Watson clearly trusts Williams to come down with the ball, since he targeted Williams 31 times with the defense back draped over his receiver.

Williams is a rangy target at 6’3, and Gareon Conley will give up three inches to the Tigers’ No. 1 wideout when they’re matched up one-on-one. Williams’ combination of size and strength makes him lethal on mid-range passes: he’s recorded seven touchdowns on throws from 10-19 yards out alone.

Even if the Buckeyes can shut down Williams, which will likely require a heavy dose of help from Malik Hooker, they still have to deal with the combined threats of Artavis Scott (5 TDs this season), Deon Cain (9 TDs), Jordan Leggett (7), and Hunter Renfrow (4). That’s a heaping helping of terrifying targets for any secondary to face.

What to watch for

The last time Gareon Conley went one-on-one with a team’s best receiver in a bowl game, things didn’t go so hot for the corner.

Will Fuller got the better of Conley in the Fiesta Bowl last year, racking up 81 of those 103 yards on a single play in which he got separation from the Buckeye CB and then broke Conley’s open-field tackle attempt easily.

But No. 8 is a year older now, and has seen some incredibly talented receivers come and go without doing a whole lot of damage. We’ve previously covered how the Buckeye coverage will actually look—in reality, Conley won’t work alone against Mike Williams on every possession—but there’s no doubt that Ohio State will lean on him to make some big plays against the Tigers’ biggest receiver.

Conley has risen to the occasion many times in 2016. Check out this stat, which somehow came after the Buckeyes faced down Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook:

Conley, Marshon Lattimore, and Denzel Ward combined to allow just one reception against a talented Nebraska team (albeit one using its backup QB for much of the game), and Michigan State didn’t even target Conley once. He’s had his share of slip-ups, but the Buckeyes have a good one locking down their top corner spot.

There are plenty of electric matchups on offer when Ohio State takes on Clemson for a berth in the national title game. Few can claim to be as important or impactful as the Tigers’ receiving corps against the Buckeyes’ lockdown secondary.