This time next year.
At the conclusion of last year’s Fiesta Bowl, it certainly looked like the end of an era for the Ohio State Buckeyes. With nearly all of the group that helped win the 2014 National Championship heading to the NFL, the 2016 team would have to rely on a completely new batch of players, and it was fair to assume that they might take a step back due. Fast forward 12 months, and the inexperienced, volatile Buckeyes are somehow in an even better spot than their seasoned teammates from the year before.
Culminating with their wild victory over Michigan —and yes, the spot was good— the Buckeyes did enough to earn a playoff spot despite not winning their conference, and have the chance to win their third national championship three seasons.
To get that opportunity, they must beat a Clemson team that mirrors the 2015 Buckeyes in many ways. The Tigers came into the season loaded with returning talent, and the expectation of nothing less than a national championship. Much like Ohio State last season though, the going has been much tougher than anticipated.
Despite all the returning talent, the Tigers slept walked through much of the season, before finally losing on a last second kick to Pitt on Senior Day. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Unlike 2015 Ohio State, Clemson had enough time to recover, and was impressive enough in its final three games to win the ACC, and make the playoff for the second year in a row.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch for in tomorrow’s Fiesta Bowl;
From the jump
Between the lab-created death machine pass rushers on its defensive line, to its trio of linebackers that never seem to miss a tackle, Clemson’s front seven is every bit as good as any group Ohio State’s faced this season, including Michigan’s. (Note: I can’t actually confirm that Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables is creating pass rushers in a lab like they’re Androids from Dragonball Z)
The Tigers are monstrous up front, and also possess the requisite speed to harass J.T. Barrett, and corral Ohio State’s playmakers on the outside. Their stellar play this season (6th in Defensive S&P+) is not only a testament to their talent, but to Venables and Head Coach Dabo Swinney for replacing six NFL draftees and not missing a beat. While they’re excellent overall, their dominance is most apparent to begin games.
The Tigers have allowed 27 points in the first quarter this season— 14 in the loss to Pitt alone— and rank 2nd in 1st Quarter Defensive S&P+. Given the Buckeyes’ early game struggles versus good defenses this season — three total points in the first quarter against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan — it’s a good bet that we’ll see more of the same after Saturday’s first 15 minutes.
Rock, meet hammer
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before. - Jacob Riis
Regardless of how the scoreboard looks after one quarter, the offense would to well to run early, often, and with physicality. Not only is that what the Buckeyes do best, but it also keeps J.T. Barrett from being destroyed by Clemson’s pass rush, and can wear out a defense that’s tended to be less effective as games have gone on.
The Tigers rank 16th and 10th, respectively, in 2nd and 3rd quarter Defensive S&P+, before drastically falling to 53rd in the 4th quarter. Whether it’s fatigue, a lack of focus, or inexperience in the rotation, it’s apparent that they wear down:
Auburn had just 38 yards and three first downs at halftime, but put up 224 yards and 14 first downs in the second half and had a Hail Mary throw to the end zone on the final play in an attempt to steal victory from Clemson after trailing by 10. Troy trailed 27-10 with 10 minutes remaining in the Tigers’ home opener; the Tigers had to recover an onside kick with 44 seconds to go for a 6-point win. Louisville went to the halftime locker room down 28-10; the Cardinals fell three yards short of a tremendous comeback win in a top-five matchup. Florida State was down two touchdowns after 13 minutes; the Noles stormed back to lead 28-20 at the end of the third quarter, though Clemson rallied to prevail 37-34.
Ohio State’s offensive line is good enough to get a push on the ground against anyone, and Clemson isn’t necessarily elite at to stopping the run (32nd in Rushing S&P+, 22nd in Adjusted Line Yards, 58th in Power Success Rate). Mike Weber and Barrett should at least be able to break off their usual four or five yards per carry in the first half. How they get those yards is what you should keep an eye on.
Those short, punishing runs by Weber and Barrett might not look like much early on, but they can essentially be used as Ohio State’s version of pounding the rock. Eventually, that rock is going to crack, and Weber, Barrett, or —most likely— Curtis Samuel will benefit in the form of a big play.
Strength on strength
The matchup between Clemson’s wide receivers and Ohio State’s defensive backs is beyond ridiculous. There are former blue-chip prospects galore, probably two handfuls of first-or-second day NFL Draft talent, and 5 players who earned all-conference accolades. Todd McShay couldn’t even mis-evaluate all these dudes. It’s probably the best matchup of position groups during bowl season, and may be the deciding factor of the game.
Each team hasn’t seen a group as good as the one they’re playing on Saturday, and from all indications, neither is going to change their approach:
Neither side will compromise its identity at this stage, so a berth in the national title game may be up for grabs in a very literal sense. “The whole offense is going to be the same,” Watson said. “You can’t go into a game thinking, ‘This player is going to control how we play offense.’ Protecting the ball—that’s what we always say regardless of if that defense is very good at creating turnovers or not.”
This is a classic “strength-on-strength” matchup, in which scheme doesn’t matter so much as the individual players’ ability to beat their man and make plays. If the other group ends up making more than yours, so be it.
Clemson’s passing game is too good to completely shut down, but the Buckeyes have the requisite talent to match them one-on-one, and win the individual battles that the Tigers’ receivers are so used to dominating. The Silver Bullets — Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore, in particular— have made a living this season making brilliant plays that change games. Based on Watson’s quotes, they’re going to have more than a few opportunities to do so in the Fiesta Bowl.
For Ohio State to win, the secondary must capitalize on those 50-50 battles, and make the kind of plays that helped win them the Michigan game.
While Watson is certainly better than Wilson Speight, his tendencies against good teams this season indicate that he’ll hit a Buckeye defender right in the hands at some point just the same. He’s thrown multiple interceptions four times this year (Troy, Louisville, Florida State, and Pitt), and it isn’t a stretch to think that this is the best secondary he’s faced, the Seminoles talented group included.
Ohio State probably can’t rely on their defense to win this game to the extent they did versus Michigan, but with how reckless Watson can be at times, they’re going to have to make one — maybe two— game-changing plays that they either score on, or give the offense a short field to work with.
This is an obvious statement for any offense, but strongly applies to Ohio State’s on Saturday: They don’t want to find themselves in 2nd/3rd and long’s against this defense. Not only does Clemson get after the quarterback at a high clip, (7th in Passing Down Sack Rate) but they also own passing downs (2nd in Passing Downs S&P+), and crush opponents when it’s time to get off the field (1st in 3rd Down S&P+). For the Buckeyes to mount successful drives and score, they’re going to have to take advantage of Clemson’s weakness on 1st downs.
The Tigers rank a mere 52nd in 1st down S&P+, and have been less effective on standard downs in general (39th in Standard Downs S&P+, 100th in Standard Downs IsoPPP). Ohio State is one of the best 1st down offenses in the country (5th in 1st Down S&P+) and this is one of the only clear-cut advantages they have offensively coming into the game.
With its struggles in pass protection, and the inefficiencies of the passing game in general, Ohio State can’t afford to have many unsuccessful first down plays. Whether it’s the usual five yard Weber or Barrett gain, or the use of the short passes, what happens on 1st downs may ultimately make or break the game for the Ohio State offense.