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Ohio State vs. Clemson: 2019 Fiesta Bowl game preview and prediction

Ohio State will be looking to exorcise some demons when they take on Clemson in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, with a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship on the line

Clemson v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’s only fitting that if Ohio State wants to make the College Football Playoff National Championship they’ll have to beat Clemson. The Buckeyes and Tigers are both undefeated this season headed into Saturday’s showdown, and Ohio State’s 19-game winning streak is the second-longest active streak in the country, only trailing Clemson’s 28-game winning streak. The Buckeyes and Tigers are the only two teams in the country ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, and total defense.

First time for everything

If that wasn’t enough to provide excitement for this game, the Buckeyes will be looking for revenge for what happened in this stadium three years ago. In one of the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinal games, Clemson embarrassed Ohio State, shutting out the Buckeyes 31-0. The loss dropped Ohio State’s all-time record against the Tigers to 0-3, with the other losses coming in the 1978 Gator Bowl and the 2014 Orange Bowl.

Raising Arizona

Saturday night’s game marks the eighth time in 17 years that Ohio State will be playing a bowl game in Arizona, and the ninth time overall. The string of games for the Buckeyes in the Grand Canyon State started with the 2003 BCS National Championship Game, where Ohio State beat Miami 31-24 in double overtime. The Buckeyes have a 5-3 record overall in bowl games in Arizona, with other notable Fiesta Bowl wins coming over Kansas State in 2004 and Notre Dame in 2005 and 2016.

Bucky big game

The Buckeyes have become a fixture in New Year’s Six bowls since the introduction of the College Football Playoff. Ohio State won the inaugural College Football Playoff with wins over Alabama and Oregon, and since then their only loss in a New Year’s Six bowl came in the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinal to Clemson. In 2017 the Buckeyes defeated USC in the Cotton Bowl, and last year Ohio State topped Washington in the Rose Bowl. Between College Football Playoff games and New Year’s Six bowl games, Ohio State has a 5-1 record.

Justin time

Ohio State enters Saturday’s game with the top scoring offense in the country, averaging 48.7 points per game. Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields conducts the offense, accounting for 50 total touchdowns this year, which is just four away from the school record of 54 total touchdowns in a season that Dwayne Haskins recorded last year. Fields finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts.

The Georgia transfer was nearly flawless throwing the football this year, tossing 40 touchdowns and just one interception. Fields added 471 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this year, but he could be limited running the football on Saturday because of a knee injury. After spraining his MCL against Penn State, and aggravating it the following week against Michigan, Fields said he’ll probably be at 80-to-85 percent on Saturday against the Tigers. Fields will be wearing a smaller knee brace than he did against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, where he threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, but was also sacked five times.

Running through the record books

If there are concerns about Justin Fields’ knee, at least the Buckeyes can lean on running back J.K. Dobbins. The junior running back was a Doak Walker Award finalist after rushing for 1,829 yards and 20 touchdowns this year year. With 99 yards rushing, Dobbins will pass Eddie George’s single-season school record of 1,927 rushing yards set during the 1995 season. If Dobbins is able to rush for 171 yards before the regular season ends he’ll become the first Ohio State running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

The key in this game will be to get Dobbins to 100 yards rushing against Clemson, as the Buckeyes are 18-0 in games that Dobbins rushes for at least 100 yards. Of Ohio State’s 13 games this year, Dobbins has reached 100 yards in nine of those games. The Texas product has gotten stronger as Ohio State’s games have gotten bigger, rushing for a career-high 211 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan, and following that effort up with 172 yards and a touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game victory over Wisconsin.

Dynamic duo

J.K. Dobbins isn’t the only Ohio State offensive player who is breaking records this year. Wide receiver K.J. Hill is closing out his career in the scarlet and gray with a bang. In the win over the Big Ten Championship Game win over Wisconsin, Hill passed David Boston’s school record of 191 career receptions, and now sits at 195 career receptions after hauling in seven passes against the Badgers. If Hill records just one catch against Clemson, it would tie Gary Williams’ school record of 48 consecutive games with at least one reception.

Hill hauled in two touchdown receptions against Wisconsin, pushing his season total to 10 touchdown receptions. With Chris Olave already sitting at 11 touchdown receptions, Ohio State now has two receivers with at least 10 touchdown receptions for the second consecutive season, and just the second time in school history. Last season Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin each found the end zone through the air at least 10 times.

A decorated offensive line

For Ohio State to find success on Saturday night against Clemson, the Buckeyes are going to need their offensive line to keep the Tigers off of Justin Fields. All five Ohio State offensive linemen earned All-Big Ten honors, with guards Wyatt Davis and Jonah Jackson each earning first team accolades. In the last meeting between the schools, the Clemson defensive line dominated the Ohio State offensive line, recording three sacks and 10 tackles for loss. If the Tigers are able to generate the same type of pressure in this meeting it will be a long night for Fields and the Buckeyes.

The Chase continues

The biggest game changer on either team is Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. The Heisman Trophy finalist led the country and set an Ohio State single-season record by notching 16.5 sacks this year in just 11 games. The junior not only became the first defensive player to win the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award, but he also won the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards.

Young wasn’t the only Buckeye to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year, as Ohio State was tops in the country with 51 sacks, which is one sack shy of tying the single-season school record of 52 sacks set back in 2000. Defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton was second the Buckeyes with five sacks this season, while three other Buckeyes recorded at least four sacks this year.

The Buck stops here

The Ohio State defensive line gets the headlines because of Chase Young, but how the Buckeye linebackers play could very well decide the game. Malik Harrison leads a group that has improved dramatically from 2018. The senior leads Ohio State this year with 69 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss. Teaming with Harrison is Baron Browning who has had a resurgence this year under the tutelage of new linebackers coach Al Washington. When healthy, Browning was able to record 40 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and four sacks.

The defensive success of Ohio State will likely hinge on the performances of linebackers Pete Werner and Tuf Borland. The duo has been criticized at times because of their play, but hopefully they’ll be at the top of their game with three weeks to prepare for the Tigers. Werner and Borland each recorded over 50 tackles this year for the Buckeyes.

Jeff, Jordan, and a few friends

Anchoring the Ohio State defense is a secondary that allowed opponents just 148 yards per game through the air this year. Cornerback Jeff Okudah picked off a team-high three passes this season, and is looking like he’ll be a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft this year if he decides to declare for the draft. Senior safety Jordan Fuller has been solid all season long, recording 57 tackles and two interceptions. Cornerback Shaun Wade could be the x-factor in this game, as he should be healthy after missing the Michigan due to injury. The redshirt sophomore broke up eight passes this season, which was a team-high.

Playoff tested

Clemson will be looking for their second straight College Football Playoff title, and third in the last four years. After missing out on the first College Football Playoff, Clemson has now made college football’s final four in five consecutive seasons. The only team who has been able to defeat the Tigers in the playoff so far has been Alabama. Clemson has posted a 5-2 record in their four previous playoff appearances.

Dominant Dabo

Head coach Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson into one of the most dominant college football programs in the country. Swinney took over as interim coach at Clemson in 2008 after the resignation of Tommy Bowden, and since has posted a 129-30 record. Since 2011, Clemson has been nearly unbeatable, amassing a 110-15 record, which was only bettered by Alabama over that same span. By comparison, Ohio State is 105-16 since the beginning of the 2011 season. The .811 winning percentage of Swinney is the best in the country among active coaches who have coached for at least five seasons.

Quite a winning streak

The Tigers enter Saturday’s game riding a 28-game winning streak, with their last loss coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. This year the Tigers were rarely tested, with their only close contest coming in the 21-20 victory over North Carolina. After the near-upset by the Tar Heels, the Tigers have hit their stride, winning each of their last eight games by at least 31 points.

Terrific Trevor

Running the Clemson offense is sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is 24-0 as a starter. Lawrence comes into this game with 3,172 yards passing, 34 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions. The Clemson quarterback is also a threat to run the football, rushing for 407 yards and seven touchdowns so far this season.

After a rocky early start to the season, Lawrence found his rhythm in the Louisville game. Lawrence threw two interceptions in the first quarter against the Cardinals, but since the beginning of the second quarter, Lawrence has completed 134 of 163 pass attempts for 1,866 yards, 23 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Lawrence was not only named first team All-ACC, but he was also a Manning Award finalist. Expect Lawrence to be a favorite for the Heisman Trophy in 2020.

Electric Etienne

Just as dangerous in the backfield for Clemson is Travis Etienne. The running back is the ACC career rushing touchdown leader, finding the end zone 54 times so far in his career. Etienne rushed for 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns this year, which earned him ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors for the second consecutive year. The junior running back can rip off huge chunks of yards with each carry, as he is averaging 8.2 yards per carry this year.

3,000/3,000 club

Between with what quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running backs Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon can do, Clemson rolled up 3,288 yards rushing and 3,888 yards passing this year, marking the third time in school history that Clemson has reached 3,000 yards rushing and 3,000 yards passing in a season. The efficiency Clemson showed on offense was impressive enough for South Florida to hire co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott as their next head coach. Much like Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, who was hired last week by Boston College, Scott will see his coordinator duties out through the end of the season moving on to South Florida.

Trio of Tigers

The breakout star of last year’s College Football Playoff was freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross, who hauled in six passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame, and followed that performance up with six more receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown in the title game against Alabama. Ross has followed his freshman season up with a team-high 55 catches this season for the Tigers. The wide receiver has gotten stronger in Clemson’s last two games, catching 12 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns in wins over South Carolina and Virginia.

Joining Ross at wide receiver is Tee Higgins, who caught 52 passes for 1,082 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Much like Ross, Higgins is gaining momentum as the games are becoming more important for the Tigers. Over his last three games, Higgins has 16 catches for 347 yards and eight touchdowns.

Rounding out the impact wide receivers for Clemson is Amari Rodgers, who probably shouldn’t even be playing for the Tigers right now. Near the end of March during spring practices, Rodgers tore his ACL and was looking at a 12-month recovery. With plenty of hard work and rehab, Rodgers only missed Clemson’s season opener, and has 27 catches for 380 yards and four touchdowns this year.

Mirror images

Much like Ohio State, Clemson has an outstanding offensive line. All five starters on the Clemson offensive line earned All-ACC honors, with left guard John Simpson and right tackle Tremayne Anchrum earning first team accolades. One name that will be familiar to Ohio State fans on the offensive line is left tackle Jackson Carman, who decided to spurn Ohio State’s scholarship offer and leave the Buckeye State to play at Clemson.

Orange crush

The good news for Ohio State is they won’t have to face the 2018 Clemson defensive line. Last year’s defensive front for the Tigers ended up sending five players to the NFL, including first round picks Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence. This year’s group is reloading, but is still very dangerous, having registered 38 sacks. The next star on the defensive line for Clemson is looking like it will be Tyler Davis, who became the first true freshman defensive tackle to start at Clemson since 1974. Davis earned second team All-ACC honors this year after registering 4.5 sacks.

Best of the bunch

The straw the stirs the drink on defense for Clemson is linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who not only won the Butkus Award and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, but was also a finalist for the Bednarik, Nagurski, and Lott IMPACT Awards. Simmons did a little bit of everything for Clemson this year, making 93 tackles, with 14 of those being for a loss, and seven of those being sacks. The linebacker also grabbed two interceptions, forced a fumble, and recovered a fumble.

Supporting cast

Middle linebacker James Skalski nearly matched Simmons in tackles, recording 90 this year. The redshirt junior didn’t get into the backfield as much as Simmons, but he was able to keep the action in front of him and slow down opponents. Fellow linebacker Chad Smith also had a very solid season, making 68 stops, sacking opposing quarterbacks 3.5 times, and forcing two fumbles.

Safety valve

Ohio State’s receivers are likely going to have a tough time finding separation against a tough Clemson secondary. Safety Tanner Muse was the star of the Clemson defensive backfield this year, earning first team All-ACC honors after intercepting four passes and recording 65 tackles. Fellow senior safety K’Von Wallace was almost as good as Muse this year, making 62 tackles and picking off two passes.

Corner market

The safeties of Clemson may have the senior experience, but the cornerbacks of the Tigers proved they can hold their own this year. Junior cornerback A.J. Terrell stepped in for Trayvon Mullen, who was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Terrell was named first team All-ACC at cornerback, while sophomore Derion Kendrick was named to the second team. Terrell and Kendrick have each picked off two passes so far this season.


Summary

Anyone who says they know what will happen in this game is a liar. Unlike 2016 when the Buckeyes limped into the College Football Playoff, both these teams have proven through the year they belong in the final four. Had it not been for how Dabo Swinney and Clemson destroyed Ohio State in 2016, the Buckeyes might have not decided to shake up the offensive coaching staff and bring in Ryan Day.

Clemson doesn’t have quite the dominant defensive front that they have had the last few years, but it doesn’t mean the defensive line of the Tigers won’t give them fits. The difference between 2016 and 2019 is the Buckeyes have a quarterback who can stretch the field with his arm. Justin Fields might have to rely on his arm a little more in this game since he is dealing with a knee injury, but that shouldn’t be a problem after seeing the sophomore throw 40 touchdowns this year. Add in what running back J.K. Dobbins can do on the ground, and the Clemson defense certainly have plenty to prepare for in this game.

Both teams caught some flak for the competition on their schedules this year, but the Buckeyes have proved their worth by beating Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin twice. Clemson doesn’t quite have that marquee win this season, but they have soundly beaten pretty much everyone on their schedule. The Tigers might have a little more to prove in this game since they are the defending champs, but they could feel disrespected because they are ranked the lowest of the three remaining undefeated teams.

There’s no doubt Ohio State will have their hands full with trying to put the clamps on quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, but the duo haven’t seen a player like Chase Young this season. One of the reasons Lawrence has been able to play such clean football since the second quarter of the Louisville game is because his offensive line has been able to minimize the pressure he has seen. That won’t be the case on Saturday night, which will allow the Buckeyes to squeak out a hard-fought victory and move on to the title game.

LGHL Prediction: Ohio State 31, Clemson 28