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Clemson wide receivers and Ohio State secondary, a tale of strength vs. strength

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Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams (7) catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson against North Carolina State at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — Ohio State redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett versus Clemson junior quarterback Deshaun Watson is without question the main card in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. But one of the primary matchups is OSU’s surprisingly dominant secondary against Clemson’s star-studded receiving corps.

When Clemson lost the national championship game to Alabama last season, 45-40, the Tigers were without wide receivers Deon Cain and Mike Williams. This time around, the two are healthy and have been nightmares for defenses all season. Williams has caught 84 passes and gained 1,171 yards with 10 touchdowns. Cain has 32 catches for 621 yards and nine touchdowns.

The maturity of both Williams and Cain has made the difference in Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s mind. He said that Williams and Cain are in the midst of their most productive season with the Tigers.

It’s been great for (Deon Cain) to have Mike (Williams) there. It’s been great for Mike to have a guy like Deon there,” Swinney said. “For us to be able to roll those two guys in and out, it’s been a tremendous amount of production. If you just look at the production at that position and the amount of touchdowns, they’ve been a heck of a combination.”

OSU’s secondary has statistically been one of the best in man coverage situations. Aside from the 19 interceptions and seven touchdowns off interceptions, cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley have excelled at defending the pass when put on an island. The Buckeyes rank fifth in the country with just 164.5 yards passing allowed per game.

At safety, redshirt sophomore Malik Hooker and junior Damon Webb have been OSU’s security blanket. The two are responsible for seven of the team’s 19 interceptions and four of the seven pick-sixes — Hooker with six and three, respectively. OSU is second in the nation in yards allowed per passing attempt at 5.4.

“They’re a great group,” Williams said. “They have guys that attack the ball in the air like receivers. They have hands like receivers. That’s probably one of the biggest differences.”

Tigers’ tight end Jordan Leggett, who is third on the team with seven receiving touchdowns, said that OSU’s man coverage is challenging, but having four or five guys that have to be accounted for in the passing game gives the upper hand to Clemson in his eyes.

“You just can’t leave (Williams) on an island with one of your corners because he’s going to win that matchup nine times out of 10,” Leggett said. “It’s just a matter of how (OSU) wants to play us. Whatever they do, they’re leaving someone else on an island with someone else. And any of our guys that we have here, they’re going to win that matchup no matter what.”

Cain said that the receiving corps that has five guys with 30-plus receptions — Hunter Renfrow with 29 — has had so much success due to the play of Watson and the Clemson offensive line.

The Clemson receiving corps has been able to win one-on-one matchups all season. The same can be said about OSU’s secondary. On Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, the two teams’ strengths, like they have all season, could define whose season ends and whose continues.

“We have a lot of good, talented guys in our receiving corps and they have a lot of good DBs that can match up with us,” Cain said. “It comes down to who wants to win and who makes the best competitive plays. That’s what this game is going to be.”

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