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How will Ohio State defend Clemson’s dominant passing attack?

The Buckeyes will need ironclad coverage against Deshaun Watson and co.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State-Clemson matchup in this year’s Fiesta Bowl promises something for just about everybody. Veteran quarterbacks looking to cement their respective legacies? Check. Head coaches who would rather saw off an arm than lose this game? Check. An advanced stat-head’s dream contest, pitting the No. 3 and No. 4 overall S&P+ teams against each other? Check and check.

The Buckeyes are tasked with finding answers to the myriad questions still surrounding their offensive play-calling and execution. Much to the chagrin of Ohio State fans, Clemson doesn’t have this problem. The Tigers are humming on offense under the leadership of Deshaun Watson, and while they can’t bowl teams over on the ground, they’ve shredded opponents through the air all season.

So...what are Luke Fickell and Greg Schiano to do?

The problem

Deshaun Watson has thrown for more than 3900 yards this season, boasting 39 passing TDs on his 2016 résumé. Watson’s completed more than 67% of his passes and averages just shy of eight yards per attempt—J.T. Barrett, by comparison, is at 62% and 6.2 YPA. The Tigers’ signal-caller is a tremendous arm talent who can run if he has to.

Watson also has a full complement of weapons to dish the ball to. Leading the pack is junior Mike Williams, who averages almost 14 yards per catch. Williams has 10 TDs on 84 catches and a 70% catch rate. He’s joined by speedy sophomore Deon Cain, who has 9 TDs on just 32 catches in 2016, and tight end Jordan Leggett, a 6’5 target who looked like a wide receiver blowing past the Virginia Tech secondary for a pair of scores in the ACC Championship game.

Running back Wayne Gallman is talented enough to draw defenders’ attention, and the Tigers made hay on run fakes that left receivers in single coverage against the Hokies last week. Clemson has leveraged advantages like this one to become the No. 8 passing attack in the country, and while they hit few home runs, they are terrifyingly efficient at moving the chains and keeping Deshaun Watson upright.

The solution

Chris Ash, now the head coach at Rutgers, brought the press-quarters coverage scheme to Ohio State in 2014. It’s worked uniquely well at Ohio State, because it relies on having at least one corner and one linebacker who can reliably cover a receiver or tight end one-on-one play after play—no safety help. It also requires a safety speedy enough to cover a slot receiver.

In the last three seasons, the Buckeyes have had no shortage of corners who can play without help over the top (Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore), linebackers comfortable in coverage against receivers and tight ends (Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan, Jerome Baker), and safeties with enough football smarts to roam where they’re needed (Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, Malik Hooker). Without all three of those elements, the press-quarters scheme can’t function as intended.

Let’s say the Tigers line up in trips left with a single right-side receiver, as in this diagram from Football Study Hall’s Ian Boyd:

A basic press-quarters look.

In this example, Clemson could have Williams, Cain, and Hunter Renfrow (their slot guy) as X, H, and Y, respectively, with Artavis Scott as the Z receiver. The Buckeyes’ press-quarters look in response could have Marshon Lattimore (C) in single coverage against Scott, with Jerome Baker (W) shadowing Wayne Gallman (R) out of the backfield.

Strong side linebacker Chris Worley (S) and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan (M) would then join Gareon Conley (C) and either safety, Damon Webb or Malik Hooker ($), in a cover-4 look. The other safety (F) is then freed up to read the pass and deliver some air support to the slot or the outside corner. (Under Meyer, the Buckeyes don’t always differentiate between strong and free safeties. For a look at how this defense works against the run, click here.)

Given the complex, on-the-fly permutations of packaged plays and up-tempo offense in the modern college football landscape, it takes a special set of defensive personnel to run this scheme well. Urban Meyer, Greg Schiano, and Luke Fickell have that in this year’s team. Safety Damon Webb is a former corner with better-than-average coverage skills for his new position. Linebacker Chris Worley is himself a converted safety, with all the pass-defending skills that come with his former position. That’s not to mention the way that Malik Hooker has walked the razor-thin margin between aggression and conservatism that all good safeties must tread, en route to six INTs this year, or the beautiful coverage skills of Marshon Lattimore, get the picture.

The conclusion

The Buckeyes will contain Deshaun Watson and keep the Tigers off the scoreboard if they can do the following three things:

  1. Get Watson’s jersey dirty. The press-quarters scheme can only work with an aggressive and talented front four. The Buckeyes have that. But Watson has only been sacked 11 times this season (compared to Barrett’s 24), and Ohio State is in trouble if they don’t get to him early and often.
  2. Emphasize the “press” in press-quarters. Against one of the best receivers they faced all year, Northwestern’s Austin Carr, the Buckeye secondary was absurdly generous. They gave Carr a 7-10 yard cushion play after play, and Carr gladly chewed up all the space they gave him. That can’t happen against Clemson’s playmakers.
  3. Eliminate the home run ball. The Buckeye pass D has shown a slight tendency toward allowing loooong pass plays, coming in at just 45th nationally in preventing explosive passes. Jordan Leggett and Deon Cain made mincemeat of the Virginia Tech secondary on a few long plays, and if Ohio State gives them those same chances, the score might tilt in the wrong direction.