National Signing Day is behind us, hopefully all your holiday shopping is done (confession time, I haven’t started mine), because it is now time to dive into the Ohio State Buckeyes’ upcoming College Football Playoff semifinal match-up with the Clemson Tigers in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl coming up on Saturday, Dec. 28.
Next week here at Land-Grant Holy Land, we will be breaking down the game from every imaginable angle, but we are kicking that process off today with the first of a two-part series with Ryan Kantor the Assistant Editor for our Clemson sister site Shakin The Southland.
The first part of our Q&A is more focused on
LGHL: There’s been a perception nationally that Clemson wasn’t playing its best football early in the season, and that in part, might be why they were never able to get the respect that Dabo Swinney thought that they deserved. Was that just a faulty narrative because of close games against Texas A&M and North Carolina, or was there something that changed for the Tigers mid-season that got them back on track to demolishing their competition?
Ryan Kantor: Unlike Alabama, Clemson doesn’t play their best football in September and October. “Championship Phase” beings in November and they’re playing their best football right now. They’ve averaged 54 points in their last six games including.
While it’s true that Clemson is playing better now, it’s not like they were struggling early. Yes, they played poorly against UNC on the road (but won). They also dominated Texas A&M, holding a 24-3 lead before a garbage time touchdown against the second string defense. Clemson beat FSU by 31, Louisville by 35, and Boston College by 52. The schedule was admittedly weak, but that was out of their control. What was frustrating to Tiger fans was Alabama seemed immune to criticism of their equally bad early schedule. I personally don’t mind it though, because the negative media narrative makes great red meat for motivation.
LGHL: Everyone knows about Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, and Travis Etienne, but who are the other offensive players that could be called upon to make big plays against the Buckeyes if necessary?
Ryan Kantor: Two other playmakers to watch out for are WR Justyn Ross and TE Braden Galloway. Ross went off for 148 yards and two TDs in last year’s semi-final against undefeated Notre Dame before going for 153 and another TD against Alabama in the National Championship. With 742 yards and 8 TDs this season, the sophomore from Alabama is a heck of a #2 option alongside Tee Higgins at WR.
Braden Galloway is an interesting wildcard. He was suspended before the postseason last year due to a positive osterine test that seemed like a fluke accident. He has just been reinstated after missing all season and a lot of Clemson fans think he can make an immediate impact. I was never totally sold that he was ready to make a big contribution and I’m not sure that a year without playing helps that cause. He’s certainly an interesting wild card to keep an eye on though.
LGHL: Clemson has the ninth-best rush defense in the country, while Ohio State has the second-best, non-service academy rushing offense. How do you think that Brent Venables’ defense will look to contain J.K. Dobbins, Justin Fields, and Master Teague?
Ryan Kantor: In another article, I argued that J.K. Dobbins was the most deserving Buckeye of a Heisman invitation. Slowing him down has to be priority number one.
Earlier this season, Clemson faced Boston College. With AJ Dillon, the BC Eagles had a very strong rushing attack and Clemson was able to stack the box and slow them down. That provides some encouragement, but BC doesn’t have a passer like Justin Fields to balance their offense. Clemson really hasn’t faced a rushing attack quite like this. Conversely, Ohio State has actually faced a defense that is excellent at stopping the run - Penn State, which enters bowl season with the best YPC allowed in football. That’s why this is my top concern in this matchup and why Ohio State was the team I was hoping to avoid all year.
I don’t know how the Tigers will stop Dobbins. I expect a very aggressive game plan that takes some risks and relies on DBs to lock down their man without safety help. Whatever they do, there’s a level of faith that Clemson fans rightly put in DC Brent Venables. He always seems to find creative ways to do the impossible. We’ll see if he can pull it off again.
LGHL: Clemson is obviously very familiar with dominant defensive linemen, but normally they’re on their team. How will the Tigers’ offensive line plan to neutralize Chase Young?
Ryan Kantor: It certainly can’t just be having running backs help block him. That’s what they tried against blitzing linebacker Chazz Surratt at UNC and it blew up in their face several times. Since then the O-line has been very good though. Clemson ranks 5th nationally in sacks allowed per game (13 allowed all season), and LT Jackson Carman, who will likely face off with Chase Young, is very good. I don’t expect Carman to get exposed. Virginia (7th in team sacks) is the closest thing the Tigers have seen to OSU’s pass rush and the Cavaliers got some pressure on Lawrence, sacking him twice. The Tigers also scored 62 on them.
Despite playing a weak schedule, the way Clemson’s O-line played against Alabama in last year’s championship lends confidence as this O-line is at least as good as last season. I’m more concerned about JK Dobbins than Chase Young, though I’m not thrilled about the prospect of trying to stop either of them.
LGHL: Ohio State and Clemson have the two best scoring margins in the country this season, and both are in the top-four in both points scored and points allowed per game. If there is an advantage that the Tigers might have that they haven’t really had to rely on this season because they have dominated their schedule this far, what would it be?
Ryan Kantor: There are several things that instill a lot of confidence about what this Clemson team can do against even an elite defense. Trevor Lawrence is playing at an elite level. His entire season may not be on par with Joe Burrow, but his last few games have been nearly perfect. He has 0 INTs and a completion percentage over 72% in each of the past six games. He’s awfully hard to bet against right now.
Our WRs can win jump balls. Tee Higgins is right there with Sammy Watkins in the debate for greatest Clemson WR of all-time. Like Kobe Bryant in his prime sometimes he makes plays where even perfect defense can’t stop it. Tee is the type of player who can make plays that there’s just nothing you can do about.
Tee Higgins is an alien. pic.twitter.com/ae8Gsx4qlS— Austin Pendergist (@apthirteen) December 8, 2019
Finally, Travis Etienne fresh legs and that’s a big bonus this time of year. J.K. Dobbins has 283 rushing attempts this year. Etienne only has 182. Now is the time for the Tigers to rely on him and his 8.2 YPC if needed.
The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes will face the No. 3 Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET. on ESPN. The winner will face the winner of the Peach Bowl, which will take place earlier that day, between the No. 1 LSU Tigers and the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners.