We all understand that No. 3 Ohio State is a substantial underdog in their College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against No. 2 Clemson — not as big of an underdog as No. 4 Notre Dame is to No. 1 Alabama, but an underdog nonetheless. When the Buckeyes and Tigers face off in the Sugar Bowl on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, OSU is going to need to play a nearly perfect game if they want to avenge last year’s semifinal defeat.
Fortunately, I think that the Buckeyes are capable of rising to that challenge, even if they have yet to play the best game of their season. They have the offensive tools to outscore Clemson, and, as fans, we just have to hope that the clarity provided by the stage that they now find themselves on will allow them to call and play the game that gives the the best chance to pull the upset.
So, here is what I think the Buckeyes will need to do on the offensive side of the ball to beat Clemson tomorrow night. Head coach Ryan Dan and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, feel free to use any or all of this rather obvious diagnosis of the game plan.
Clemson is going to score points, and there is no defense this side of the ‘85 Bears who would be able to stop them. So, Ohio State is going to need to keep pace with Trevor Lawrence and company to have a shot to keep their national title hopes alive, and given how uneven and inconsistent the OSU offense has been this season, Day and Wilson are going to need to go back to Urban Meyer’s old adage of trying to have 250 yards on the ground and 250 yards through the air in order to win.
However, I don’t think that being equally balanced between run and pass is enough, I think that they will also need to be fairly well balanced between deep and short passes, and between running back and quarterback carries as well.
Through the air
Throughout 2020, Day and QB Justin Fields have been nearly singularly focused on throwing the ball down the field. Whether that was because they believed it was their best chance to win, or because they were trying to increase Fields’ chances to win the Heisman Trophy in a pandemic-shortened season, I don’t know. This game plan led to some incredible results early in the season, but the margin for error was slim, and when things didn’t go exactly according to plan, Fields looked out of sync, leading to unforced errors and unnecessary sacks.
Clemson has given up 28 passes of 20 yards or more this season, so there should be some opportunities for Fields to find Chris Olave and company deep, but the Tigers rank second nationally with 44 sacks this season — over 11 contests, that is good for four per game, which is fourth nationally. So, given Fields’ propensity to take sacks — OSU ranks 104th out of 127 nationally with 3.0 sacks allowed per game — it will be important for OSU to take advantage of defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ aggressiveness.
I think that it will be important for Fields to get the ball out in rhythm on three-step drops and to connect with Olave, Garrett Wilson, and his tight ends for shorter completions early on to allow for the opportunity to hopefully hit some home runs as the game goes on. If Day and/or Fields get obsessed with going deep, it will likely be an ugly outcome for the Buckeyes.
On the ground
Until the Big Ten Championship win over Northwestern, I would not have considered the Ohio State running game much of a threat against Clemson, but following Trey Sermon’s historic explosion against NU, there is some reason for renewed optimism in the rushing attack.
The Tigers come into the Sugar Bowl allowing only 2.79 yards per carry, but on the season — thanks in large part to his games against Michigan State and Northwestern — Sermon is averaging 8.04 ypc, which is eighth nationally. Now, I realize that the Oklahoma transfer has racked up most of those yards against defensive competition that pales in comparison to what he will see on Friday, but he doesn’t need another 300-yard day in order to be impactful in New Orleans. Over his last two games, Sermon has averaged 11.36 ypc, so if he can even average half of that against Clemson, a 20-carry day would result in a 111-yard output. Not bad.
That kind of production would be a good start for Ohio State’s ability to stay on schedule offensively and to help counter Clemson’s impulse to blitz with impunity. The only problem is that I don’t know that a Sermon-focused running game will be enough for the Buckeyes to overcome Clemson’s offensive firepower and elite defense. That’s why Day and Wilson are going to need to pull out all of the stops and throw everything at the Tigers that they have.
For years, there was a running joke between me and my dad where we would facetiously insist that Meyer’s vanilla, quarterback-power offense was just a smokescreen for future opponents, because the coach didn’t want to put anything more sophisticated on film. Obviously, that was never the case, because QB-power was pretty much all OSU ran for years on end under Meyer.
However, Fields is not the same type of quarterback as J.T. Barrett, even though in his nearly two full-ish seasons in Columbus, we have only been treated to glimpses of half of his electric talents. There have been moments where Fields has used his athletic ability to scramble for first downs, and a few rare instances where he has taken off on designed runs. But, if the Buckeyes are going to upset Clemson on Friday, they are going to have to use every available trick in their offensive bag, and that includes running Fields.
Now, I am not suggesting that he carries the ball 25 sack-adjusted times, but a world in which there are six to seven designed QB runs and a handful of times in which Fields takes off instead of takes a sack would be another huge advantage to keeping the Tiger defense honest.
Fields is a threat in the open field, and if Venables has to actively account for him on every play, that means that there is one less person available to blitz or to drop into coverage, resulting in the OSU offense being able to play an ever slow slight advantage in the all-important numbers game.
The Buckeyes are going to need to play a perfect game on offense to keep up with Clemson. They are going to need to connect on passes to all quadrants of the field, and they are going to need both quarterback and running back to make an impact with their legs. There is definitely a path to victory for OSU, but it will be all about executing a well-developed, balanced game plan on offense.