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Football: Ohio State defense needs to play at elite level to top Clemson

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OSU's defense watches a tipped ball that would then be intercepted by redshirt freshman cornerback Damon Arnette (3) during the first half of the Buckeyes game against Northwestern on Oct. 29. The Buckeyes won 24-20. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

OSU’s defense watches a tipped ball that would then be intercepted by redshirt freshman cornerback Damon Arnette (3) during the first half of the Buckeyes game against Northwestern on Oct. 29. The Buckeyes won 24-20. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

“Defenses win championships” has been the motto adopted by numerous teams throughout sports that defines the winning attitude of a team. Ohio State is notorious for its own catch phrases to capture that final missing piece of motivation during its journey to a national title run.

In 2014, it was “The Chase.” 2015 was “The Grind.” This season OSU has lived off of “The Edge,” which is where average stops and elite begins, coach Urban Meyer said in August. To defend and limit an offense as potent as Clemson’s, OSU defense has to surpass that edge on Dec. 31 in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl.

OSU defense has already set a school record this season with seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. Co-defensive coordinator and associate head coach Greg Schiano implemented the “sideline return” play that has seized momentum-changing opportunities time and time again. Redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker has become one of the most dominant safeties in the country in his first season of significant playing time. He is responsible for three of the team’s seven pick-sixes this season, which is an individual school record.

But it’s not necessarily just Hooker. Sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker has arguably been the most improved player this season, considering he didn’t start at the beginning of the year. An injury to junior linebacker Dante Booker put Baker in the lineup. Redshirt sophomore Marshon Lattimore has also excelled in his first season starting at cornerback. Schiano said when talking about Hooker, Baker and Lattimore, you’re talking about three elite athletes at their positions.

Schiano and co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell have shared defensive play-calling duties this season that have led to the Silver Bullets being in the top 10 in the nation in several defensive categories, including third in total defense and scoring defense. The play of OSU’s secondary has been its saving grace at times this year. Hooker, Lattimore and company might have to be that safety blanket again up against a Clemson team that completes 27.9 passes and throws for 333 yards per game.

“I’ve never coached a secondary as talented as this, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Schiano said. “We had some talented ones in Miami (Florida), but this, to me, is the best.”

It’s well known that Clemson junior quarterback Deshaun Watson is the keyholder to coach Dabo Swinney’s offense. Watson, a 2015 and 2016 Heisman finalist, is 30-2 as a starter when he finishes the game healthy. He has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,914 yards with 37 passing touchdowns, which all rank in the top 10 in the country.

Watson is without question the leader of the offense, but having wide receivers like Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett and running back Wayne Gallman make the Clemson offense that much more terrifyingly difficult to defend. Scott, currently sitting at 592 receiving yards, likely needs just one catch to join Williams, Leggett and Deon Cain as the fourth Tiger receiver with 600 yards or more.

To give some perspective on just how talented the Clemson receiving corps is, Clemson only had two receivers with at least 600 yards in 2011 when All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd had five NFL players — Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Dwayne Allen, Martavis Bryant and Jaron Brown — to throw to. Boyd accumulated over 3,800 passing yards in 2011 compared to Watson’s almost 4,000 yards this season.

“They have athletes all around the field,” Baker said. “Great athletes, great quarterback, great running back, great receivers. They definitely have athletes pretty much everywhere at every position.”

OSU allowed 226 yards against Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the nation’s leading passers in quarterback rating. During that game, OSU also shut down the other Oklahoma Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook who racked up just 51 yards on five catches against the Buckeye defense.

Coach Meyer said his team wasn’t young anymore following the 42-24 victory at Oklahoma in September. He said his team was experienced. Schiano still believes his team is young, but thus far the defense has stood the test and he doesn’t have any reason to believe his playmakers won’t step up to the task at hand against the No. 2 Tigers.

“I just look at (the defense) as we have a chance to keep getting better,” Schiano said. “If you get better every day, hopefully at the end you’re playing for it all.”

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