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Fiesta Bowl Scouting Report: Ohio State Defense

The Buckeyes’ defense matches up against Clemson better than anyone in the country. Yes, that includes Alabama.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Notre Dame vs Ohio State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson returns to the scene of the crime in Glendale, Arizona, where we bore witness to what would’ve been the greatest moment in program history. That loss still lingers; not from anger and dejection which usually accompany a Clemson loss, but the quiet pride and simmering hunger still pervading the Clemson sections of the University of Phoenix Stadium. Even if you’re not making the return trip this weekend, take a moment to remember how close we were and appreciate what’s at stake Saturday.

For once, it seems I am less optimistic than most who follow the Clemson program as we approach Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl contest against the Ohio State Buckeyes. I wanted no part of the Buckeyes all year and quite honestly would rather face an Alabama team (RIP my mentions) which doesn’t have an experienced quarterback or the elite playmakers in the secondary to play lockdown man coverage like OSU does. And while I felt Penn State was more deserving of the playoff bid, I certainly can’t argue against Ohio State’s inclusion on the established basis of inviting the best four teams.

Ohio State’s defense provides the toughest test Clemson could possibly face this year with its secondary full of NFL talent to go along with the sort of front line you’d expect from Ohio State, and not to mention the best linebacker in the country by a large margin, Raekwon McMillan (the one who got away). Contrary to the Alabama approach of pattern-match coverage behind a suffocating front 7, Ohio State actually employs the simple sort of defense nobody except Kevin Steele has dared try against Clemson: man under coverage.

Deshaun Watson’s performance against Alabama in January was other-worldly, and naturally everyone pins Clemson’s title hopes on a repeat performance. Watson was able to manipulate coverages with both his eyes and legs to burn Bama like only an elite quarterback can. Ohio State won’t give Watson the chance to do so with tight coverage outside and linebacker spies.

So why is it such a difficult challenge? How could it be a tougher matchup than Alabama? Well, because man coverage only works if a secondary is better than the quarterback and receivers it faces — and then it is all but foolproof. For the first time since FSU in 2013 (projectile vomiting on my MacBook), an opposing defense is more than up to the challenge of manning up on Clemson’s skill. You might next point to Watson’s running ability as the solution against a defense foolish enough to to play man against a mobile QB, but keep McMillan in mind. No linebacker in the country comes close to what he brings at the Mike position and will more often than not keep Watson from doing much damage on the ground when he is asked to spy.

Adequate man coverage outside and underneath will allow Ohio State to blitz and spy different linebackers on the same play if necessary. This will hamper, if not completely eliminate Watson’s ability to improvise. Admittedly, Ohio State didn’t face many decent (or even competent) offenses this year. But they already destroyed one Heisman finalist who lives on improvisation: Baker Mayfield.

Yes, yes, we in Clemson all feel Mayfield is overrated and Oklahoma will forever be steamrolled by any team with decent line play. But Ohio State did more than predictably dominate up front; they largely shut down the OU receivers all night in man cover 1 just like Clemson did in last year’s Orange Bowl.

3 man rush man cover 1 spy. The right tackle busted horribly and gave up quick pressure, but notice OSU was able to blitz AND spy Mayfield. This forces a quick throw into man under which is all too easily intercepted.

Much like Brent Venables has done with Clemson’s 3-2-6 DIME OF DOOM, Ohio State has a pressure package for critical pass-rush situations, in which the DTs are replaced with DEs and is subsequently known as its “rushmen” package. Never was it more successful than in a walk-off situation against Wisconsin:

The coverage is a simple man cover 1 spy, but with extra pass rushers on the field it feels like a relentless blitz.

Clemson can beat man coverage beyond simply winning outside: by taking advantage of its pre-snap motion as a decoy. Every offense uses motion to determine man or zone coverage before the snap; when you know a team is in man, you can use it to pull a defender out of a play before it even starts:

Ohio State won’t often switch before the snap, meaning when a receiver goes in motion he will pull his man with him. Oklahoma took advantage with Clemson’s favorite run play, the bucksweep!

The best defenses don’t change what they do, regardless of the opponent. Much like Clemson, Ohio State dictates its preferred style to the offense, forcing the opponent to adapt instead. Unlike Clemson’s multiple schemes, however, Ohio State thrives on simple man coverages. Ohio State won’t need to change what they do against Clemson’s NFL quarterback and receivers, and it’s why they match up against Clemson better than anyone in the country. Most teams have played safe in zone and hoped for the imminent mistakes to derail Clemson’s offense, but Ohio State counts on its talent advantage in the Big Ten to win the one-on-one matchups required to play adequate man coverage. They’ll attempt to lock down outside and underneath, spy in the middle, and bring pressure to make Watson eat it when the coverage and spies prevent him from creating.

Bottom Line

The winner in Clemson’s offense vs Ohio State’s defense will come down to who wins outside. Aside from OU, the Buckeyes weren’t challenged out wide all season. Now they face the best quarterback and best receiver unit in college football, who happen to play on the same team. Ohio State will likely take away the Clemson run game with its front 6 and hope to mitigate the damage outside in a contest between elite skill groups. Unless the Clemson receivers are monstrous (certainly a possibility) or Clemson’s offensive line has its way with the OSU front (not as likely), I have a hard time seeing Clemson score more than 30 points.

On offense, JT Barrett is a shell of his former self and not nearly the threat I expected him to be this preseason. Curtis Samuel is the difference-maker, and Clemson will have to keep the busted run fits to a minimum. Thankfully, 2015’s trademark coverage busts (except wheel routes) are a thing of the past, so Barrett won’t get the freebies downfield to boost his confidence unless a linebacker is isolated in coverage; he and Samuel will likely have to create in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage. When Ohio State must pass, I love Clemson’s chances against a struggling passing team and an offensive line which is often bad and sometimes horrible in pass protection.

I’ve gone back and forth on this all month, but I’m finally predicting a Clemson win thanks to Clemson’s receivers winning their share against a secondary which, for all its greatness, has benefitted from poor QB and WR talent in the Big Ten. I see this game playing out similarly to the Auburn game in week 1. Watson will do just enough against a scheme which will minimize his effectiveness, and despite giving up the usual big runs, Clemson’s defense will keep Ohio State mostly one-dimensional.

Clemson 27, Ohio State 23