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What Ohio State needs to accomplish before the Fiesta Bowl

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The main thing on offense is VERY obvious, imo.

Big Ten Football Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Now that the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes know their postseason draw and opponent, they have just over 20 days until the take to the field against the No. 3 Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinals.

While three weeks sounds like a long time to prepare, when you consider what is happening between now and Saturday, Dec. 28 when the Fiesta and Peach Bowls take place, it is a far more condescend timeline that you would imagine. The next week and a half will likely see coaches working to finalize the 2020 recruiting class as the Early Signing Period approaches from Dec. 18-20.

Currently, students also are in the midst of preparing for finals, and I’d imagine that they will get a day or two off to visit family before they fly out to Arizona.

So, in this compacted period, these are the two main things that I would like to see the Ohio State players, coaches, and training staff focus on before they take tot he field again. Obviously there are a million smaller things that will be addressed in the pre-bowl game practices, but these are the two headline issues from my perspective.

Let me know what you think they should be keying in on in the comments below.


Offense

The obvious issue here is the health of Justin Fields. Since Ohio State doesn’t provide much detail in regards to injuries, the severity of his MCL strain isn’t quite known publicly. But, given what we saw from him against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten Championship Game it is easy to see that he is not 100 percent, but also that he is clearly capable of still playing at a high level even while injured.

While Fields recuperating is obviously No. 1 with a bullet, I also think that getting the offensive line back to being healthy is a major key as well. As the season has progressed, and Ohio State has faced better competition, the Buckeye pass protection has gotten progressively shakier.

Again, the teams that they were playing certainly played a big part in that, but so did the fact that the offensive line was dealing with injuries. In the second half of the season, Thayer Munford, Branden Bowen, Joshua Alabi, and Gavin Cupp have all been on the injury report and missed some time, and Wyatt Davis had to exit the B1G Title Game due to an injury before returning in the second half.

With Clemson averaging 2.92 sacks per game this season (13th nationally), Fields’ protection and ability to escape pressure could very well be the difference in making the championship game.


Defense

Ohio State’s defensive line is elite. Ohio State’s secondary is elite. Ohio State’s linebacking corps... is not elite. Now, granted, they have improved tremendously since last year, but the 2018 issues of poor tackling and suspect coverage have popped their heads up in recent weeks, especially against Michigan and Wisconsin.

Over the next three weeks, defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, along with linebacker coach Al Washington, need to come up with a scheme or rotation that will not allow a Clemson team that is lightyears more athletic than the Wolverines or Badgers to bludgeon OSU’s second-level defenders.

These LB issues have shown up in different ways in both the running and passing games this season. We’ve seen it with running backs (and running quarterbacks) getting to the second level and on short passes to the middle of the field.

On the ground, running outside against OSU is effectively impossible, so you have to go inside. In order to counter the Buckeyes’ great d-line, you simply have to send more blockers than they have defenders. This leads to the linebackers having to fill holes and make tackles, which is where the problems arise.

Against a running back as talented as Clemson’s Travis Etienne (leads all of FBS with an 8.24 yards per carry average), you have to have LBs who can not only diagnose the play quickly, but are athletic enough to get to the running back and not run into the backside of an offensive lineman who doesn’t even know that they’re there.

In the passing game, we saw Michigan’s Shea Patterson cut up OSU with short passes into the soft underbelly of the Buckeye defense. Fortunately, as they did against Wisconsin on Saturday, the coaches were able to turn sub-par first halves into dominating second halves and run away from their conference foes.

Now, I’m not going to assume that I know what the answer here is to playing two halves of dominating defense better than the coaches, but I think that it is telling that despite Tuf Borland being the starter at middle linebacker, his snaps appear to have been minimal in the second half of the last two games.

While 11 Warriors’ Snap Counts are a wonderful recourse, they only provide full game totals. I’m unaware of anyone who tracks (and publicly publishes) snap totals by half, but I would sure be interested seeing in those totals.

Either way, Ohio State can’t allow Clemson to have their way in the middle of the field if they want to have any chance to advance to the title game.


Bonus

I’d love to see Ryan Day and Mike Yurcich work in some intermediate passing concepts for Fields, but since that has not been a part of the offense at all this year, I’m not counting on that happening.

I’m not sure if the hesitance to include the mesh and crossing routes heavily this season — after being a staple with Dwayne Haskins last year — is because Fields isn’t comfortable with those timing, tight-window throws, or because the running game brings more defenders closer to the box, but adding some plays to attack the middle would almost certainly benefit both the running and deep passing game.