The Fiesta Bowl is nearing and we’ve expanded our pre-game coverage with a two-part Q&A preview. You can read part one of the Q&A here (our questions) and here (their questions). We re-connected with Matt Tamanini of Land Grant Holy Land for part two of this Q&A preview. We hope you enjoy our exchange below!
STS: When Clemson has the ball on offense, what individual or position matchup gives you the most concern? Which gives you the most optimism?
While I have no doubt that Travis Etienne will be able to get yards, the passing game for Clemson is what concerns me the most. Ohio State’s secondary has been beat up in the last few games of the season, and while they have had some time off to recuperate, how close to 100 percent they are is still an unknown.
And, playing in the Big Ten, they haven’t had to contend with more than one quality receiver on the field at a time. When trying to deal with Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and the rest of the group I’m just not completely confident that they can keep up throughout the entire course of the game. They might be able to, but this is just a secondary that hasn’t been truly tested yet this season, and this is one heck of a first test.
Then tangentially, there is the underneath passing attack. While I know that this isn’t normally Clemson’s m.o., the Buckeyes’ linebackers are the weakest part of the defense, and Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin – all to varying degrees – have been able to exploit them with quick passes over the middle, whether that’s to tight ends, running backs out of the backfield, or to receivers on slants or crossing routes.
Depending on what linebackers OSU decides to play, and what the rotation looks like, this could be a major opportunity for the Tigers to pick up yards in chunks.
STS: Clemson has been reamed for their weak schedule all year. Ohio State has played a much tougher schedule with Wisconsin (twice), Penn State, and Indiana all proving to be quality opponents this year. That being said, the Buckeyes haven’t faced a top 25 offense (in total yardage) all season. Is it a stretch it to wonder if part of the rapid defensive improvement from last year is based on the offenses they’ve faced?
In terms of the way that you framed this question, probably not, because the offenses that they faced last year weren’t that good either. So, I think that OSU’s defense is lightyears better than it was in 2018, but, there is reason to be suspect of how dominant Ohio State’s defense has been in 2019, especially against the pass as I mentioned before, because frankly, they didn’t really face any teams that could pass in the regular season.
Even in the running game, where Ohio State has faced far more formidable challenges, none of the offenses have had rushing attacks in the style of Clemson’s. It has been nearly impossible for opposing running backs to get outside against OSU’s defense this season, but I expect that will change with Etienne.
I think the schedule concerns go both ways. Because Clemson and Ohio State are almost inarguably the most well-balanced teams in the country, more often than not their best competition has likely come in practice when the 1s scrimmaged the 1s.
I would not be surprised if there is a bit of a feeling-out period in the first quarter as both teams try to see what is actually going on, what might be different than they’ve seen on film, and what adjustments can be made.
STS: Everyone talks about Chase Young, but who is another player on the Buckeyes defense Clemson fans should know about coming into this game?
Jeff Okudah is probably the easiest answer. He is the best player on the defense other than Young, but, I am going to go with Shaun Wade. He is OSU’s slot corner and is looking to come off of an injury that kept him out against Michigan and hobbled against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Because he will be covering receivers, as well as tight ends and running backs, and helping in run support, Wade has the ability to be in on a lot of plays where the Buckeyes will desperately need his speed, strength, and athleticism. He was a third-team All-Big Ten selection, and is considering forgoing his senior season for the NFL Draft. So, if he is healthy, he very well might end up having a major impact on the game.
STS: It has been much discussed that one the keys to this game will be Clemson trying to slow down Ohio State’s elite pass rush. While Clemson doesn’t have the uber-elite defensive line they typically do, they still rank 10th in TFLs and 22nd in team sacks while Ohio State ranks 51st in TFLs allowed and 94th in sacks allowed. How realistic is it that Clemson could flip the script and be the team getting in the backfield?
Oh, I certainly expect Clemson to pressure Justin Fields. As mentioned in our last chat, he has had a tendency to hold onto the ball for far too long this season, and when you couple that with pass protection that is the weakest part of the OSU offense, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clemson gets four or five sacks in the game.
However, the flip side to Fields holding onto the ball has been that it has led him to opportunities to create big plays with both his arm and legs. So, that is a tradeoff that OSU has been comfortable making so far this season. While they would like Fields to throw the ball away a little earlier, instead of taking sacks, this has also led to some pretty big conversions for the Buckeyes.
On the other side, while Chase Young hasn’t had a sack in the last two games, he has had an impact, both in terms of QB hurries and requiring a tremendous amount of attention from offenses. But, I would think that he would have to be a close-to-dominant force if Ohio State is going to win. I imagine that if given time, Trevor Lawrence will eventually find someone running wide open for a 60-yard TD pass.
So, being able to pressure Lawrence and force him to get the ball out of his hands more quickly than he would like to feels like it is a must for the OSU defense.
STS: Finally, although it may seem I’m down on Ohio State based on some of my questions above, they were actually the team I was most hoping Clemson would avoid. The reason is JK Dobbins. He’s had huge performances against strong rush defenses and stopping the run isn’t Clemson’s defensive strength. Do you think a big performance by Dobbins carries day? How do you see this game playing out?
While I am, admittedly, biased, I think that J.K. Dobbins is the best running back in the country, and was more deserving of Heisman consideration than Justin Fields. Unlike last season when Dwayne Haskins was at quarterback, this year’s Buckeye offense is very much a run-focused attack. Obviously the addition of a capable runner in Fields helps, in my opinion the improvements have had to do with vastly improved run blocking, and tremendous improvements that Dobbins has made since his sophomore season.
He doesn’t have the speed that Etienne does, but he is still pretty quick and has a lethal combination of patience, power, vision, and escapability. So, if Ohio State is able to have success on offense, I think that it will be very much predicated on Dobbins’ being able to rush for something in the area of six yards per carry.
In terms of how I see the game playing out, honestly, I don’t really know yet. I think that Clemson and Ohio State are the two most complete teams in the country, but neither has yet been tested by an elite team (though OSU has played a few good to very-ish good teams). So, it is hard for me to really get my head around how they will match up.
I also think that for me – like many Buckeye fans, I imagine – there’s a bit of PTSD thinking back to the last time that these teams played in the Fiesta Bowl in a national semifinal.
But, I do think that there will be more points scored than the analytics suggest, so if I had to guess (and I reserve the right to change it), I will wear my scarlet and gray colored glasses and take Ohio State 38, Clemson 35.
A huge thank you to Matt for doing not one, but two Q&As with us before the big showdown. Our second set of answers to his questions will be posted to LandGrantHolyLand.com shortly. We hope you had a Merry Christmas and are enjoying the pre-game coverage here at STS. If you haven’t already read them, here is the first Q&A and here is the detailed depth chart and statistical analysis.