For the second time in 2016, the Ohio State Buckeyes are set to play in the Fiesta Bowl. This time around though, it’s not just another bowl win that is on the line.
Whether it’s ironic or not, this will also be the Clemson Tigers’ second trip to the desert in 2016. Although it was considered the national championship and not the Fiesta Bowl, the Tigers played in Glendale, Arizona when they lost to Alabama in the national title game last season. One of two National Semifinals, the winner of the Fiesta Bowl, whether it’s the Buckeyes or Tigers, will advance to the national championship and take on either Alabama or Washington.
In both school’s storied history, Clemson is a perfect 2-0 against Ohio State, with their last meeting coming in the 2014 Orange Bowl, a game that the Tigers beat the Buckeyes, 40-35. Not only will the scarlet and gray be looking for a win to advance to the national title game, but they will have redemption on their minds as well.
Matchups to watch
J.T. Barrett vs. Clemson’s defense
The redshirt junior has struggled throwing the ball for much of the season, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make plays by himself. How can he do so, you ask? If Barrett is struggling throwing the ball against Clemson’s secondary, he can use his feet to make plays happen, just like he has all season. The Big Ten Quarterback of the Year, there’s a reason why he was the best quarterback in the conference and one of the best in the country.
Although he threw for 2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns, Barrett’s legs will be the biggest key. On a career-high 194 carries during the regular season, he ran for 847 yards and nine touchdowns. With the offense’s success on his shoulders, the quarterback will be counted on to make play to lead Ohio State’s offense down the field, whether that be through the air or in the ground attack. If he has a good game, chances are, the Buckeyes will come out on top.
Ohio State’s offensive line vs. the Tigers’ front-seven
Clemson will likely load the box, stop Ohio State’s ground attack, and force Barrett to beat them through the air. This means that plenty of pressure will be put on the Buckeyes offensive line, in order to not only give their quarterback time in the pocket, but also open up holes for Barrett, H-Back Curtis Samuel, running back Mike Weber, or whoever else is running the ball for the Bucks.
The Buckeyes allowed just 25 sacks in 12 regular season games. 14 of those came against Penn State and Michigan, who were arguably the two best defensive teams Ohio State played all season. Why is that a problem? Clemson’s 46 sacks (second in the country) and 112 tackles for loss are third-best in the country.
For what it’s worth, when both Michigan State and Michigan loaded the box in Ohio State’s final two games of the regular season, Barrett averaged just 105 yards through the air. While he can make plays with his legs, that low output through the passing game won’t be enough to beat Clemson. The offensive line must give their quarterback enough time to find the open player(s).
Will the Buckeyes’ front be able to block the Tigers’ very good defensive front? Only time will tell, but this will be key for the final outcome of the game.
Deshaun Watson vs. the Buckeyes’ secondary
We already know how good both Watson and Ohio State’s defensive backs are, so who will win this battle? Chances are, whoever wins the battle between these two, their team will come out on top on the scoreboard.
Mike Williams (and the rest of the receivers) vs. Ohio State’s secondary
On Wednesday, we talked about how important it is to stop Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, but the Tigers have playmakers all over the outside. They have four players with more than 590 receiving yards and Deshaun Watson knows how to find his guy who has an advantage. Whether it’s out wide, in the slot, or at tight end, Clemson has plenty of playmakers on offense.
Silver Bullets vs. Clemson’s high-powered offense
This game will feature plenty of offense. While Barrett and company have done their job all season, Watson’s Tigers by far have the better offense, at least through the air. Ohio State’s secondary seen their fair share of opponent’s try to be them by the pass, but Clemson will be their biggest test so far this season. The Tigers average 40 points and 500 total yards per game, including 333 of those through the air. The Buckeyes’ defense? They have allowed just 14 points and 267 total yards per game, including just 165 passing yards. Everyone already knows how good Watson and Williams are, but Clemson has plenty of athletes all over the field that can catch the ball and make plays.
Urban Meyer vs. Dabo Swinney
We already know how good both of these teams are and that’s due to each of their head coaches. Coaching will be a main factor on who advances to the national championship, mainly play-calling. With Dabo holding a 1-0 lead in the head-to-head matchup, Urban will look to find redemption this week. Now, who will out-coach the other, and who will be left saying “what if”?
Regular season losses
Clemson’s lone loss came at home at the hands of the Pittsburgh Panthers, 43-42 on November 12; Ohio State’s came against the Penn State Nittany Lions, when they lost 24-21 in Happy Valley on October 23.
Keys to the game (besides the matchups)
Thanks to the Silver Bullets, the Buckeyes have a plus-26 turnover margin (plus-20 interceptions, plus-6 fumbles) and a significant advantage in the turnover battle. Clemson? They are almost the polar opposite. The Tigers have been on the wrong end of the turnover margin all year long, with a minus-24 (minus-15 interceptions, minus-9 fumbles), which is 109th worst in the country.
Curtis Samuel’s touches
It’s simple: Samuel is Ohio State’s best playmaker and one of the best do-it-all players on offense in the country. The problem lies in the amount of touches he has received throughout the regular season. In 12 games so far in 2016, the H-back has combined for 65 catches for 822 yards and seven touchdowns to go along with 91 carries for 704 yards and eight touchdowns.
With over a month to prepare for the Fiesta Bowl, chances are, head coach Urban Meyer and the rest of the offensive coaching staff drew up plenty of plays in order to get their top offensive player the ball, whether it be in the backfield or up the field. Now, will that come to fruition or will Buckeyes fans be left wondering why Samuel received such minimal touches, yet again. His big-play ability can not only lead Ohio State’s offense down the field, but it could also open up the field for the rest of the Buckeyes as well.
J.T. Barrett’s ability to throw the deep ball
As previously mentioned, Clemson will most likely load the box and force the quarterback to throw the ball downfield in order to beat them. Whether it’s due to the fact that he doesn’t have a legitimate deep threat or just that his arm isn’t as good as it used to be, Barrett’s deep ball has been inaccurate for much of this season. During the regular season, Ohio State was 105th nationally in passing plays of at least 30 yards and 116th in passing plays of more than 40 yards. The Buckeyes will not only need to open up the pass game, but they will have to throw the deep ball at times in order to make big plays and open up the run game.
New Year’s Eve may be filled with plenty of drinking and having fun with family and friends, but for Buckeye Nation and three other fan bases across the country, along with plenty of NFL eyes and scouts, it will consist of plenty of football (and hopefully a win) as well.
Kickoff between Ohio State and Clemson is set for 7 p.m. ET at University of Phoenix Stadium (home of NFL’s Arizona Cardinals) in Glendale, Arizona, following the Alabama-Washington game at 3 p.m. ET. Both games will be on ESPN.
The winners will meet in the national title game on January 9 in Tampa, Florida.