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The Ohio State Defense Has Fallen Back

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What to glean from six really uninspiring contests? A drop-off.

Indiana v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Here we go again, controversy around Ohio State in the Playoff and ridiculous banter superseding any talk around the matchups. I’ll get this out of the way up top: Ohio State probably is a top 2 or 3 team based on their potential. They also have the worst, least deserving playoff resume we have or will ever see again. Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama are perhaps the only three programs who could get in based on potential/reputation over results, and that’s exactly what happened here.

That isn’t to say I can’t see why they got in. If they play to their potential, which draft boards and recruiting rankings all reflect, they are undoubtedly one of the best teams in the country, more than worthy of inclusion. Would they beat Texas A&M and Notre Dame head-to-head? A&M, likely, yes. Probably Notre Dame too.

The trouble is they haven’t shown anything remotely top 4 worthy all year, and for OSU fans and players to expect them to just flip a switch because they’re eager to beat Clemson, or in the committee’s case defer to preseason expectations despite six games showing something rather different, is an objective intellectual fallacy.

But here we are. It’s Clemson and Ohio State again; yet another budding national rivalry in which Clemson finds itself, though this one lacks the respectable and even congenial nature we enjoyed in the Clemson-Bama contests from 2015-2018. This one oozes disdain and derision from the head coaches (well, one of them certainly) all the way down the roster. And it has exhausted me for a full calendar year now.

Lost in all the hoopla and bravado coming out of Columbus is just what the Buckeyes lost from last year’s defense — both in the booth and on the field — which they’ve failed to replicate or remotely replace. My focus is on the Ohio State defense, and in studying the only non-Bama matchup I wanted to avoid, I found plenty unexpected reasons for optimism pointing to one rather glaring conclusion: this Buckeye defense is nowhere near what it was a year ago.

Count me among the few, if any, Clemson folk who thought OSU was better than Clemson last year. Plenty a Buckeye writer felt they were the better team and would’ve been a tougher matchup for LSU, and I completely agree. The better team lost 12 months ago.

Clemson won with superior quarterback play and especially by outcoaching Ryan Day, both with Brent Venables adjusting to inverted cover 2 coverages and Tony Elliott hitting OSU where their defense is schematically weakest: against the QB run and RB receiving game.

Former coordinator Jeff Hafley fielded perhaps the best and certainly the most talented defense in the country last year, yet now my pick for ACC Coach of the Year is quickly building Boston College toward respectability instead of letting an entirely blue chip defense dominate in simple yet suffocating man cover 1 and cover 3 zone calls.

One single high safety was enough with 1st round corners Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette outside, and afforded Hafley the ability to keep seven or even eight in the box to smother the run behind a dominant line. Clemson was only able to move the ball consistently with QB lead draws and passes to Travis Etienne from the backfield (both of which Clemson has continued to use extremely well) which baited the OSU linebackers into misreads.

Ohio State still runs much of the aggressive man cover 1 and cover 3, where their talent advantage provides all the advantage they need in the Big Ten. Though we’ve seen more two-deep shell coverages and disguises off them than in 2019, against Clemson’s 11 personnel and a dangerous running back Ohio State wants to open the game in its typical 4-3 with only one deep safety. Ideally they will rotate between tight cover 1 and softer cover 3, with disguised safety movement and blurred pressure looks in passing situations — unless Clemson’s outside receivers win the battles this year and force adjustments.

The biggest difference I’ve seen in Ohio State this year is they blitz a bit more often to make up for the talent drafted this past spring, rather than lean on rabbit fronts for passing situations which got Chase Young matched on pass-blocking guards.

This is almost Venables-esque in its intent to mask from where pressure will come and a disguised coverage shell, but Ohio State almost always plays soft cover 3 behind its 5 man pressures. Safety movement at the snap revealed cover 3, Northwestern had a cover 3 beating slot seam dialed up.

Last year’s nickel corner, Shaun Wade, has moved outside part-time and expects to be another early draft choice this spring. Yet his transition outside hasn’t been smooth, and his stock has tumbled as he’s failed to jam effectively like Okudah and Arnette did in dominating Clemson’s WRs last year.

This is sloppy technique by a corner who clearly wanted to bail.

Nor has he been as desired defending passes downfield, often beaten with physicality in the air as well.

Clemson knows its WRs lost the battle against Ohio State’s press man coverage in 2019, and even with a far weaker WR unit this year, knows what to expect Friday. This is the primary matchup I’ll watch, since I again expect little in OL run blocking, and look toward whether the Clemson WRs or OSU DBs win at the line of scrimmage to tell me who will ultimately pull away in this game.

Wade is a much easier target here than either outside corner Clemson faced a year ago, and with more than four healthy WRs for the first time in two months, Clemson may be able to find an elusive mismatch.

It’s surprising to see just how poorly Ohio State ranks in pass defense, especially when looking at their competition. Part of the raw (often misleading) statistical woes in pass defense are found in big leads in early contests against Penn State and Indiana, where the opposition quickly had to throw to stay alive, but even then we’ve seen the backfield give up open zones and out-bodied on contested passes.

The run defense is where OSU finds its most favorable matchup. Yes, Clemson’s offensive line had an uncharacteristically sublime performance against a Notre Dame front which dominated it back in November. It’s easy to point to Trevor Lawrence in the zone read (and even QB counter!) game which affected this, but the line did indeed play its best game of the season.

I’ve been harsh on the line all year, so it shouldn’t surprise you to learn I’m going to hedge again on the conventional run game — though we must note Tony Elliott never even bothered to try and run up the A-gap against Notre Dame, and the typical inside zones without a keep option by Lawrence were instead outside zones which got Etienne to the corner, where he’s the most deadly. This should remain the game plan no matter who calls the plays now — and arguably should’ve been all season — because Ohio State can be beaten on the edges if you make their defensive tackles move laterally or seal them out.

Up front, everything hinges on nose tackle Tommy Togiai and 3 tech Haskell Garrett. Togiai is a monster inside and requires a double team from his usual 1 tech alignment. He’s the Tyler Davis (though not nearly the gap shooter) to the Buckeye front, and pairs with Garrett to form the primary reason Swinney/Streeter/Elliott on Zoom should aim away from the A-gaps.

Most will point to the lines of scrimmage when looking for the ultimate winner in this game. Whether Clemson can stop the OSU ground game and get to Fields (the same strategy we saw stymie a schematically similar Notre Dame two weeks ago would indeed be the best case scenario, IMO) will certainly determine just how many points the Buckeyes can score. But it’s the perimeter I’m watching, since Clemson WRs winning at the line out wide will make the game easy for Lawrence like two weeks ago. If the WRs can’t win out wide it will be another war like last year’s semifinal.

Similarly, if Clemson’s corners can smother the Buckeyes’ two primary receiving targets (Olave and Wilson) like in round 2 against Notre Dame, we’ll see Venables load up against the run and send late pressure to corral and punish Fields for holding the ball too long, as is his obvious tendency. From there it snowballs and Fields becomes Ian Book but with a stronger arm; attempts to create like he did in high school will turn out horribly more often than not.

Even though Clemson’s WRs are nowhere near the level they were a year ago, neither is the OSU secondary. Clemson does find a matchup advantage here though with Amari Rodgers in the slot unless Wade moves back inside to nickel. But as we’ve seen, Wade hasn’t been the player his reputation suggests; a microcosm for the 2020 Ohio State program, if you’re looking for a metaphor.

With EJ Williams’ emergence, Frank Ladson’s return to health, and Trevor Lawrence pulling the strings to hit OSU where they’re weak (we know they’ll compensate against the QB run and RB receiving options this time), there are more favorable matchups to be found. In fact, there are many more than last year when Clemson beat a superior team. Ohio State can’t say the same unless their WRs beat the Clemson corners in turn.

I’m more concerned about Olave than the run game. With Tyler Davis and James Skalski, Clemson holds up well against outside zone teams and already boasts a better run defense than the Buckeyes, to boot. It’s losing 1-on-1 outside which will handicap Venables against the run, and where Ohio State finds the clearest path to victory. Olave is a genuine nightmare and that the Big Ten deigned to clear him to play Friday gives the Buckeyes’ offense its best chance to blow up Venables’ strategy and beat Clemson, perhaps even handily.

Unlike a year ago, I like Clemson’s matchup advantages on the perimeter better, along with the quarterback and coaching edges. My confidence level in this pick is middling at best — certainly not on a Notre Dame Round 2 level — but if Clemson can hold up against the deep play action shots, I don’t think Fields and this offense can do enough to keep up with what Clemson can do against a surprisingly vulnerable Ohio State defense.

Clemson 34, Ohio State 24