Weeks of anticipation and buildup have all come down to Saturday’s showdown in the desert. Both No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) and No. 2 Clemson (12-1) have traveled across the country to play in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, and the chance to advance to the College Football Playoff has players chomping at the bit.
On paper, OSU and Clemson is a compelling matchup, highlighted by stout defenses and powerful offenses. While the Buckeyes have had a few dominant performances this year, they have yet to face a team quite like the Tigers.
Here’s a look at the breakdown of what Clemson brings to the table on both sides of the ball.
Clemson’s junior quarterback Deshaun Watson is the go-to guy for the Tigers. For a second straight season, the Georgia native has completed upwards of 67 percent of his passes, while slinging a career-best 37 touchdown passes.
Coach Dabo Swinney is well aware he has a gem calling the shots on his offense, and knows just how Watson does it.
“To me his poise really makes him incredibly unique, because he just … he just never changes,” Swinney said. “But it’s who he is as a young man that you don’t really know until you’re around him. Most people just see a great player. He handles himself the right way and all that.”
Watson has been protected by an outstanding offensive line all season, as he has only been sacked 1.1 times per game. A key to limiting the Heisman finalist quarterback is pressure, but it seems unlikely OSU will have a field day getting to the quarterback.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Williams and redshirt junior running back Wayne Gallman are vital pieces to the puzzle for Swinney, racking up a combined 2,276 yards of offense with 25 total touchdowns. Limiting either player will be far from an easy task, especially Williams, who has been a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses all year long.
OSU redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker said he felt stopping Williams is a key to defeating Clemson. Watson is prone to forcing the ball into tight coverage, and taking away his No. 1 target could spell trouble for the Tigers.
“I’ve been watching film on him and every jump ball that he gets when the ball is thrown his way, I feel like he has the mentality that it’s going to be his ball,” Hooker said. “So, I feel like it’s definitely going to be a task for the secondary especially, because if we stop the pass, I’m almost sure that the line and the linebackers are going to go out there and fill holes and stuff like that.”
Clemson has hit its stride on defense at the perfect time in the season, allowing an average of just 267 yards of opposing offense in the past three games, all while allowing just 18.3 points per game over that span.
Anchored on the weakside by senior linebacker Ben Boulware, the Tigers will be looking to create pressure on OSU redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett. Even though Clemson benefits from a fierce pass rush, the Buckeyes’ offensive line benefits from prepping with some of the best defensive lineman in the nation.
“I don’t think I’ve faced a better (defensive) end in practice than our (defensive) ends,” sophomore offensive tackle Isaiah Prince said. “I think it definitely helps prepare us for the game.”
On Tuesday, Clemson senior safety Jadar Johnson said he felt Barrett was far from the best quarterback the Tigers have seen all season. Although he did go on to say he felt the Buckeyes’ quarterback was still a good player, the damage had been done.
Multiple OSU players were quick to defend their signal caller, while Barrett made his own statement on Johnson’s comments. The veteran quarterback seemed unfazed over the criticism.
“There wasn’t a lot to it, I feel like,” Barrett said. “He has his own opinion, which I’m not mad at. I’m comfortable in my skills and what I’m able to do. If he feels like I’m not the best quarterback they went against, I mean, that’s just how he feels.”
While Barrett and the entire OSU offense has not been known for turning the ball over this season, Clemson has been able to force an average of 1.8 turnovers per game. The Buckeyes have one of the best turnover margins in the nation with a +1.3, but expect the Tigers to take the ball away at least once.
OSU freshman running back Mike Weber summarized the ability of Clemson’s defense in his opening statement on Tuesday.
“They’re really fast on the back end,” the Michigan native said. “They have really good, athletic corners and safeties. And their (defensive) linemen are really tough and gritty down there in the trenches. And it’s going to be a tough game.”
The Tigers will need big plays from Boulware, Johnson and the rest of their defense if they hope to get a chance at revenge in the national championship after last year’s loss. Even with a solid defense, it will take a total team effort to bring home a win.
There is little to no chance of this game being a blowout. Although the Buckeyes have a 55 percent chance of winning according to ESPN, anything short of a 50/50 split seems unfair.
The presence of Williams and senior tight end Jordan Leggett in the pass game might be the biggest test of the season for OSU’s secondary. These two standout players, matched with the leadership of Watson, could spell trouble for the Scarlet and Gray.
This game has all the makings of a shootout, and even though OSU has been known to keep pass with opposing offense all season in tight games, the luck might finally run out for coach Urban Meyer.
Prediction: 41-38, Clemson