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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Clemson Sugar Bowl

Will the real Justin Fields please stand up?

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Every game day of the 2020-21 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

Alrighty, folks. Today’s the day. After more than a year of seething, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes have the chance to avenge last year’s Fiesta Bowl defeat as they take on the No. 2 Clemson Tigers for the second-straight year. While last season many believed that the Buckeyes were the better team even after the loss, coming into tonight’s matchup, OSU is a decided underdog, with Las Vegas favoring the Tigers by seven points.

After a season as complicated and messy as this one has been, it’s difficult to really know how to analyze an Ohio State team who has only played six games. But, going into the game at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, there are five(ish) main things that I will be watching that I believe will have a huge impact on who survives and advances to take on (almost certainly) the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.


1) Who’s gonna play?

This has unfortunately been a recurring theme over the last few games for the Buckeyes as COVID-19 has impacted the availability report. Ohio State was without more than two dozen players, for various reasons, against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, a contest that was just 13 days ago. Under the B1G rules at the time, any player who had tested positive for the coronavirus in the week before the game would have had to miss the Sugar Bowl, but as we all know, the conference changed its rules so that players only had to miss 17 days, though they could begin practicing after the CDC suggested 10 days. The extra week was added for monitoring in regard to concerns over myocarditis.

Via official social media photos throughout the week from Ohio State’s official channels, we know that wide receiver Chris Olave will be back for the game, but we don’t know about linebacker Baron Browning, WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, or punter Drue Chrisman who were all presumed out for COVID-related issues. We also don’t fully know the status of safeties Marcus Hooker and Ronnie Hickman who warmed up for the NU game, but did not end up playing.

On Thursday, Ryan Day said that being 100% has been a “floating target” for Ohio State this season, as even when everyone is available to play, it doesn’t mean that they are at their full capacity, part of the problem with having only played six games.

But, it’s not just the Buckeyes dealing with potentially missing key members of their team, as we already know that Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will miss the game due to a positive test and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter will be calling plays. What we don’t know is if there were any positive tests amongst players that have worked closely with Elliott, or if anyone will be out due to contact tracing.

As we all know, the B1G rules are far more stringent on those types of things than those of any other conference — as evidenced by the fact that OSU took their last COVID test before heading to New Orleans on Thursday, while Clemson did so on Wednesday. Will there be surprises on either the Buckeyes’ or Tigers’ availability reports? OSU will reportedly release theirs just an hour before kickoff at 7 p.m. ET, so we won’t have any answers on that front any time soon. But, if there are, that could surely impact the outcome of the contest one way or another.


2) Will the real Just Fields, please stand up?

In yesterday’s column, I made my argument for how Ohio State’s offense could out-duel the Tigers, and it basically requires a perfect game with an impeccably balanced offensive game plan; yes, balanced between the run and the pass, but just as importantly, balanced between short and long throws, and between runs from the running backs and the quarterback.

But here’s the bottom line, Ohio State’s chances from the offensive side of the ball are solely in the hands of Justin Fields. His play and decision making have been less than stellar in the second half of this abbreviated season. The QB’s passing grade was above 90 in every game against Nebraska, Penn State, and Rutgers in the first three weeks of the season according to Pro Football Focus, but since then, he has struggled mightily, with grades of 63.7, 74.1, and 55.8 against Indiana, Michigan State, and Northwestern respectively.

That kind of performance just ain’t gonna cut it against Clemson, friends. Fields is going to need to have his best game as a college quarterback for the Buckeyes to win tonight. That includes being willing to hit his underneath receivers and tight ends and not getting hyper-focused on the deep ball; being willing to run when pressure is bearing down rather than holding the ball and hoping to create a miracle; being willing to throw the ball away when nothing is available; and being able to diagnose the most talented and complex defense that he has seen since last year’s matchup with Clemson.

It’s a tall task, but I believe that Fields is up for it, and it’s the only way that the Buckeyes come out of New Orleans victorious. Despite just throwing one touchdown and two picks, Fields did throw for 320 yards against the Tigers last year, so we know he is capable of carving up the Clemson D.


3) Linebacker and secondary scheme and rotation

Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? I don’t think that the 2020 versions of either Ohio State or Clemson are as good as their 2019 counterparts. Both have lost significant contributors on both sides of the ball, but the biggest difference between this year’s matchup and last year’s matchup is in Ohio State’s defense.

Not to be too dramatic, but it is a shell of its former self, and I would argue that how bad it is is has actually been hidden a bit by the subpar competition that the Buckeyes have faced this season. The defensive line has been good, but not great (more on that in a second), the linebackers have been the OSU linebackers of recent years with an undeniable issue in the middle, but the secondary has been a disaster.

Obviously a large part of that is the departures of Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, and Jordan Fuller, but the transition from Jeff Hafley to Kerry Coombs has been far more problematic than I ever anticipated. The Buckeyes have cut the number of plays that they are in man-to-man looks almost in half (from 46% in 2019 to 24% in 2020). And, when they are in man, instead of employing the press-man coverage that was OSU’s calling card under Greg Schiano, they are often playing off, giving opposing wide receivers opportunities to make catches and then avoid defensive backs as if they were playing on roller skates.

This is an especially important fact as, this season, Trevor Lawrence’s completion percentage drops from 66% against zone coverage to 44% against man. This would be something that I think that a defensive coordinator would want to take advantage of.

Now, there have been glimpses of hope from OSU’s defense with young players like Lathan Ransom and Ronnie Hickman being forced into play due to COVID situations, or super-senior Justin Hilliard having monster games anytime he is allowed on the field. But there are a lot of questions about how things will look for the Ohio State defense tonight.

Will Tuf Borland continue to be an anchor in the middle of the defense against the most talented and athletic team that they’ve faced this season? Or will Hilliard and Browning see more time along with Pete Werner? Will a linebacker be asked to cover the dynamic Travis Etienne out of the backfield?

Will Marcus Hooker be the single-high safety against the best QB in the country? Or will Josh Proctor move from his nickel/bullet position to the back of the defense? Will Ransom or Hickman get any PT at all?

Will Coombs adapt his game plan to look more like what was semi-effective against a less explosive Tigers’ team last year? Will we see more press-man? Will we see more basic man-to-man coverage?

I obviously don’t know the answers to these questions, but I imagine that when we do get them, they will go a long way to determining tonight’s outcome.


4) Can they sack Trevor Lawrence?

I know that most Ohio State fans aren’t going to believe this, but according to Pro Football Focus, the Buckeyes are the best team in the country when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks. With a grade of 91.3, the next playoff team in the pressure rating is Alabama at 83.4 at 15th (Notre Dame is 28th at 79.4 and Clemson is 36th at 78.1).

However, despite the amount of pressure that the Buckeyes have put on their opponents this year, the Buckeyes are only averaging 2.83 sacks per game, good for 25th nationally. Last season, OSU was third in this category with more than one full sack per game more in 2019 (3.86).

There is no doubt that the interior of Ohio State’s defensive line has been elite this year with Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai leading a unit that has turned in the second-best stuff rate in the country. Running against this defensive line, especially inside, is very difficult. But, while Jonathon Cooper has had his best season as a Buckeye, OSU hasn’t yet found a defensive end to live up to the legacy of the Bosa brothers and Chase Young on the outside.

Now, when you’re facing off against most quarterbacks, simply applying pressure is probably good enough to have a major impact on the outcome of the game, but the Buckeyes aren’t facing most quarterbacks, they’re facing one of the best quarterbacks in college football history in Trevor Lawrence.

This season, the Tigers are only allowing 1.64 sacks per game, and while part of that is that the Clemson offensive line is good, the real reason that Lawrence hasn’t been sacked much has more to do with his ability to avoid pressure and get rid of the ball quickly. The Buckeyes have only blitzed 22% of the time this season, supplying most of the pressure from just their down linemen, if the d-line can get to the QB more tonight, or if Coombs brings extra pressure from a linebacker or safety, that could force Lawrence off his game. And anything to disrupt this high power offense will be a win for the OSU D.


5) Can Clemson pressure Justin Fields?

On the flip side of that, earlier this season, I wrote an article about how Ryan Day accepted the fact that Justin Fields took more sacks than many fans would like, because it often also led to him doing incredible things to keep plays and drives alive. I would now like to rescind that article. Justin, stop taking so many sacks!

In the Fiesta Bowl last season, Clemson sacked Fields four times, but it’s not just about Fields’ ability to scramble or get rid of the ball — which I discussed above — it’s also about whether or not the Ohio State offensive line can give their QB time to make the best reads and decisions.

When Fields is unpressured in the pocket, he is one of the best passers in college football, completing 81% of his attempts for 10.1 yards per dropback. On those plays, he has the third best QBR in all of the FBS (94.7).

However, when he is under pressure, those numbers nosedive. He completes only 42% of his passes for just 1.2 yards per dropback, and his QBR bottoms out to just 2.4, 113th nationally. Even more telling is that his interception rate nearly quadruples going from 1.6% to 5.6%.

Without pressure, Fields is the quarterback that we all expected him to be coming into the season; under pressure, he looks like a guy struggling to play at the Division I level.

Ohio State’s pass blocking has been average this season, ranking 33rd nationally according to PFF. However, if they want to continue their pursuit of the national title, they’re going to need to figure out how to pick up Brett Venables’ blitz packages and give Fields a clean pocket; otherwise, this could get ugly.


Bonus) Can’t waste trips into the redzone

Ohio State raced out to a 16-0 lead in last year’s semifinal matchup against Clemson, but was forced to settle for three field goals inside the 20 yard line in the first half. Obviously, that didn’t work out well last year, and given the Buckeyes’ defensive issues this year, it certainly won’t work this year. Getting tot he red zone has to equal touchdowns this year, and I won’t be mad if Ryan Day just goes for it on fourth down in the red zone as a rule tonight.


Predictions

With my head: Clemson 41, Ohio State 31

With my heart: Ohio State 45, Clemson 41