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Clemson Faces Stern Defensive Test Against Ohio State

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Just like most of this year, we had a chance to talk with fellow SB Nation site Land Grant Holy Land about an upcoming Clemson game. E.L. Speyer from LGHL was kind enough to answer a few question about Ohio State and his thoughts on the upcoming Fiesta Bowl game between Clemson and Ohio State. Below are his answers.

STS: So it has been a couple years since we last saw Ohio State and things are better than ever for the Buckeyes. What's been the secret to Urban Meyer's success?

LGHL: That Orange Bowl game with your Tigers was a real turning point for Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State. If you recall, the Buckeyes won in all of Meyer’s first 24 games, but the defense was absolutely abysmal during that run. Ohio State found success in 2012 and especially 2013 because its offense was able to outpace the opponent, but things finally caught up to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State, and then against Clemson in the bowl game, when Ohio State’s porous secondary helped make Sammy Watkins a very rich man.

After the season, defensive coordinator Everett Withers left the program to take the head coaching gig at James Madison, a move many have speculated he took after Meyer forced him out. Chris Ash stepped in, installed rugby-style tackling and a quarters coverage scheme, and the Buckeyes haven’t looked back since.

Meyer is most known for his explosive offenses, but he has rode elite defenses to all three of his championships. In 2013 the Buckeyes ranked 84th in total defense. Since then the defense has always been a top-30 unit, and ranked 4th and 7th respectively over the last two years.

STS: For Clemson fans, everyone has heard about J.T. Barrett, but who are some other names on offense Clemson fans should be aware of?

LGHL: Curtis Samuel is the obvious answer. The junior H-back is Ohio State’s do-it-all weapon, and with a month to prepare I anticipate that the offensive brainpower is designing new ways to get the ball in his hands. Samuel led the team in all receiving categories, but he’s also the team’s most explosive rusher. In total he accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns, he’s just as dynamic as Percy Harvin was for Meyer at Florida while playing the same position.

A less known name that I’m watching for is wide receiver K.J. Hill. Ohio State has rotated as many as 10 receivers this year, to the frustration of many fans, as Barrett has found little chemistry with any of his true pass catchers. Hill only has 17 receptions this season, but he appears to be Ohio State’s most polished route runner, which is as much of an indictment of the OSU receivers as it is a compliment to the freshman from Arkansas. He did battle some nagging injuries throughout the season, and I wonder if the staff will use the extended preparation time to get Hill ready for an expanded role now that he’s fully healthy.

STS: One of the things I've noticed from watching Ohio State this year is that it seems like J.T. Barrett is afraid to throw the ball deep. Is this just a perception issue or is there something going on?

LGHL: There’s definitely something going on. I can’t speak to your question of if Barrett is scared to go deep, but the passing game is certainly less explosive than it’s been in years past.

And you might be right, Barrett could be scared. The receivers have earned little trust in their ability to win 50-50 battles down field, and the offensive line has been porous in pass protection on long developing plays. On top of that, Barrett has a relatively weak arm, and he seems to lose confidence if he misses on early opportunities.

STS: Ohio State has also had some rather poor OL play. How concerned are you about that play with Clemson's DL coming up in the Fiesta Bowl?

Very concerned would be an understatement. Ohio State’s right tackle Isaiah Prince has been one of the worst pass protectors in all of the country in his first season as a starter, and Clemson likely poses the biggest challenge this line has seen to date.

The fact that Prince has been this bad has been one of the more surprising developments of the season. Every year, Ohio State dons its freshmen with black stripes on their helmets during fall camp. The newcomers aren’t officially considered Buckeyes until they earn the removal of that stripe.

As a freshman in 2015, Prince was the first member of his vaunted recruiting class to have his stripe removed. This doesn’t guarantee immediate playing time, but it’s generally an indicator of who entered the program most game-ready. Prince has been anything but that, and I’m fearful that the Tigers will eat him alive in Phoenix.

STS: Ohio State's defense is stupidly good against the run, how do you think they will work to contain Deshaun Watson in the running game?

LGHL: I think Ohio State will approach Watson similarly to Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who ran for just five yards and had his worst throwing performance of the season against the Buckeyes. Ohio State was disciplined in its’ contain against Mayfield, forcing the Heisman finalist to step up in the pocket and eliminating his threat as a rusher on off-script plays. Watson is a superior runner and thrower to Mayfield, and Clemson’s offense is more sophisticated than Oklahoma’s, but Ohio State certainly has the athletes on defense to similarly mitigate Watson’s dual-threat capabilities.

STS: How do you think Ohio State is going to try to cover Clemson's potent group of receivers and force Watson to make some poor decisions in the passing game?

LGHL: Ohio State is going to play its base defense regardless of who they’re playing, which means a lot of press man coverage. The coaches believe they have the talent to dictate playstyle against anyone, and they’re going to line up and see if Clemson’s excellent receivers can beat Ohio State’s loaded secondary.

I do anticipate that we’ll see one wrinkle, as Ohio State moves its best cornerback, Gareon Conley, to the slot for much of the game. Earlier in the year Ohio State commonly rotated three cornerbacks on the outside, in Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward, while Damon Arnette solely lined up against the slot as the team’s Nickelback. That strategy changed after Northwestern’s Austin Carr torched Arnette and Ohio State from the slot, and Conley has assumed slot corner duties in high-leverage situations down the stretch. Against Clemson, it’s likely that Conley is needed more frequently on the inside.

STS: Finally, how do you think this game plays out?

LGHL: Even in light of Ohio State’s obvious deficiencies in the passing game and on the offensive line, I have yet to pick against the Buckeyes this season. When lining opponents up on paper, I always look for three things: Who has the advantage at head coach, who has the advantage at quarterback, and who has the overall talent advantage. Only a handful of teams can match Ohio State in overall talent. Even less can match Urban Meyer as a head coach. And even if he struggles as a down-field passer, J.T. Barrett is in rare air as a leader and winner on the college level.

However, Clemson is one of those few teams that recruits at Ohio State’s level, and the Tigers' talent is seasoned from last year’s playoff run, whereas these young Buckeyes haven’t been here before. I still trust Meyer more than Dabo Swinney with a month to prepare, but the gap between the two coaches is less wide than the margin between Barrett and Watson.

Overall, I just think this is a bad matchup for Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ strength is a secondary that features multiple first round picks, but Clemson counters with a bevy of NFL receivers. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s struggling offensive line has to battle a defensive line that ranks third in the country in sacks per game.

Ohio State probably made it to the playoffs a year early, and I don’t think the Buckeyes will be up to the task. I’ve got Clemson winning in a defensive battle that swings on a few big plays by Watson, 24-16.

Bonus: I think you’ll beat Alabama too.