I hope you enjoyed the ACC Championship and are looking forward to the rematch with Ohio State as much as I am. The Buckeyes have been salivating for this matchup since their loss to the Tigers in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Shaun Wade even referenced Trevor Lawrence in his announcement that he was returning for another season in Columbus:
Now we’ve got the game everyone wants to see, this time in the Sugar Bowl. To help us preview it and learn why this Buckeyes team looks a little less scary than last year’s team, we partnered with Gene Ross from Land Grant Holy Land. If you’re on Twitter, please consider giving him a follow here.
Ryan: I gained a ton of respect for Justin Fields this offseason when he teamed up with Clemson players Trevor Lawrence and Darien Rencher to leverage his platform to try to save the college football season. I’m happy he’ll now get a chance to play in the CFP. Watching him play this season, what stood out to me is how he uses his legs to turn busted plays into first downs. What are some things about his game that make him such a great QB for the Buckeyes? What are your expectations for him in the NFL draft and playing at the next level?
Gene: Justin Fields was a near-perfect quarterback last year. He scored 51 total TDs with only three INTs in his first season as a starter. The interception he threw at the end of last year’s Fiesta Bowl is probably a game winning touchdown if Chris Olave runs the correct route, as it was the exact same play the team ran earlier on a 4th down conversion for a TD. The voices of guys like he and Trevor Lawrence were obviously of tremendous importance in terms of getting this college football season back up and running, and so it is very fitting the two will meet again in the College Football Playoff.
This season has not been as impressive for Fields, as he has had some uncharacteristically poor performances against teams like Indiana and Northwestern. I think a large reason for this has been a mixture of Fields pressing a bit to try and boost his stats in a year where he was only going to play a max of eight games in the regular season, and Ryan Day’s over-commitment to trying to hit the home run play too often. Most of Ohio State’s issues in the passing game have revolved around running slow-developing long pass plays against teams that like to blitz. Losing Olave for the B1G championship game obviously did not help either.
At the end of the day, Justin Fields is still one of the top players in all of college football. He is incredibly accurate with the football, and almost always puts it where only his receiver can get it. He makes a ton of NFL-type throws with ease, and the added bonus of being able to hurt you with his legs makes him very tough to stop — something we didn’t really get to see in last year’s CFP as he was nursing a knee injury. He fits Ohio State’s offense perfectly, and I think he will be a great NFL prospect that will almost certainly be taken in the top five. He has all the tools to be a starting QB at the next level, he will just need to work on his progressions a bit more to really perfect his game.
Ryan: The Buckeyes amazingly had three defensive players taken in the first round of the NFL draft last season: DE Chase Young (2nd), CB Jeff Okudah (3rd), and CB Damon Arnette (19th). How have they replaced all that talent from the defense?
Gene: The short answer is: they haven’t. Ohio State’s defense is certainly not what it was a year ago. Chase Young is about to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and replacing a guy who put up 16.5 sacks in 12 games last season is an impossible ask. The secondary has also taken a step back, as Shaun Wade has not excelled as an outside corner as much as he did in the slot, and the guys around him are inexperienced and have not really gotten to hit their stride with all the starting and stopping this season has produced. Ironically, they may actually miss safety Jordan Fuller more than any of those guys (other than Young), as he was a perfect safety net at the back end of the defense.
Ohio State’s defensive line has taken on a by-committee approach, with Jonathon Cooper and Zach Harrison leading the way at the ends. Their best player up front has actually been tackle Haskell Garrett, who despite being shot in the face a month before the season began trying to break up a domestic dispute on the street has blossomed into an incredible pass-rusher and run stopper up the middle. Sevyn Banks and Josh Proctor have stepped up in the secondary, with Banks opposite Wade on the outside and Proctor playing a safety hybrid that sometimes lines up in the box. Banks has been good but not great in pass coverage, while Proctor is a big boom or bust guy that will either force a turnover or take a questionable angle to the ball.
Ryan: In addition to those defensive players, Defensive Coordinator Jeff Hafley also left to take the head coaching job at Boston College (where he’s done an exceptional job thus far). Who’s taken over in that role and how have things changed without Coach Hafley? How does this defense and team compare to last year’s?
Gene: The loss of Jeff Hafley was bigger than most people realize. Coming off the 2018 season where Ohio State had one of their worst defenses in program history, Hafley was one of the new members of Ryan Day’s staff that helped turn largely the same group of players into one of the best units in the country. While guys like Okudah, Arnette and Fuller were already supremely talented, Hafley really helped them to hone their skillsets and all become starting players in the NFL as rookies.
They replaced him with a familiar face, as Kerry Coombs returned to Columbus. Coombs coached Ohio State’s corners from 2012-17 before taking on the job as the DBs coach with the Tennessee Titans. His second stint with the Buckeyes included an even bigger role, as in addition to coaching the DBs he is also now the co-defensive coordinator. Coombs is a walking Red Bull can with the energy he brings to the field, and Ohio State fans were thrilled to have him back in the building. He was, after all, the same coach that helped produce guys like Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, and Denzel Ward.
It has been a bit odd to watch him coach the defense this year, as Ohio State has kind of strayed away from the things in the secondary that made them so great a season ago. For starters, the Buckeyes corners don’t press at the line nearly as much as they did in 2019. I’m not sure if they just don’t think they have the guys capable of doing it, but OSU DBs have given far more cushion to receivers this year and it has definitely hurt them more than it has helped. They’ve also employed much more of a two-safety look this season, which in a way is a better scheme for going up against dynamic passing offenses like Clemson’s.
Ryan: Coach Day caught everyone off-guard by coming out with an up-tempo passing attack early in last year’s game against Clemson. It worked well enough to build a quick 16-0 lead. Clemson’s defense finally looks healthy and dominant. How do you expect the Buckeyes to attack it?
Gene: I almost think Ryan Day could catch people off-guard again by going with the complete opposite attack to start the game. Ohio State has been a pass-first team all season long, as the loss of J.K. Dobbins has been reflected greatly in the run game. The Buckeyes’ rushing stats on paper look great, but I can assure you the ground game is not nearly as explosive this time around as it was when Dobbins was toting the rock. However, as you may have seen in the Big Ten Championship Game, OSU has potentially found themselves a new weapon in Trey Sermon.
Sermon’s 331-yard performance against the Wildcats really came out of nowhere, as up to that point he didn’t even look like the best running back on his own offense. However, now that the offense line is back at full strength, the run blocking was absolutely tremendous, and Sermon looked like a man possessed. I don’t expect a 200-plus yard performance from the Oklahoma transfer against Clemson, but i do think that Ohio State could utilize the ground-and-pound approach early against the Tigers to try and get a few more guys in the box and open up the passing game for Justin Fields.
Ohio State’s offense is pretty simple at its core. In years past, they have used a strong run game to open up the play action pass plays and really keep opposing defenses guessing. I think they will try to do more of the same against Clemson. The Tigers will be one of the stronger defenses the Buckeyes have played this season, and it will make life incredibly difficult if they become too one-dimensional. Look for Day to try and incorporate the run game early, and don’t be surprised if we see Justin Fields use his legs more than he has in any other game this year. They want to get the ball in the hands of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and that will be much easier with a functioning rushing attack.
Ryan: Finally, we just saw the Big Ten adjust their protocol around player quarantine to be shorter and more in line with the science. With the change, what players, if any, are at risk of missing the Sugar Bowl?
Gene: Ohio State has not exactly been incredibly transparent when it comes to their COVID-19 testing this season. In both instances where the team has suffered small outbreaks, we did not find out which players were missing until the Saturday morning before kickoff. The Big Ten lowered its mandatory quarantine from 21 days to 17 (big whoop), which means that any player that missed the B1G title game for COVID-19 will have to had tested positive before last Tuesday.
The one player we know for sure the Buckeyes will be getting back is Chris Olave, who Day specifically mentioned in an interview with ESPN. Ohio State was also missing wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba as well as starting linebacker Baron Browning against Northwestern, and it is unclear if either will be available against Clemson. When asked if everyone would be back, Day responded “a good amount of them,” would be, so I guess we will have to wait and see.
In addition to the guys out due to COVID-19 protocols, the Buckeyes also dealt with some injury woes against the Wildcats. Starting safety Marcus Hooker as well as his backup Ronnie Hickman were both out this past Saturday, forcing OSU to go to freshman Lathan Ransom at an important spot in the secondary, and running back Master Teague went down in the first quarter and did not return. It is unclear what kind of injuries those guys are dealing with, but none of them seemed too overly serious that they would have to miss the game against Clemson.
Thank you to Gene Ross for sharing such good insights with us. You can follow him on twitter at @Gene_Ross23 and follow me at @Ryan_Kantor. Be sure to check out my answers to Gene’s questions on Land Grant Holy Land too. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!