GLENDALE, Ariz. — The matchup between the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1) versus the No. 2 Clemson Tigers (12-1) has finally arrived. The two teams feature several future NFL draft picks and top players at every position. Clemson junior quarterback Deshaun Watson and OSU redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett highlight one of the most anticipated showdowns of the season.
But no one needs to be told that. However, looking away from junior H-back Curtis Samuel, junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan and redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker, there are a few players who will have the opportunity to make an unexpected impact.
The Tigers thrive on the arm of Watson and their gifted receivers Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett.
The gurus behind Clemson’s bullish offense, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, often call formations with three, four or five receivers, which means the defense has to send out five or more defensive backs to prevent the pass. Sophomore cornerback Denzel Ward, who rotates with redshirt sophomore Marshon Lattimore and redshirt junior Gareon Conley, could see a lot of action when Watson drops to pass.
“It’s a great defense,” Watson said earlier this week. “They do a lot of great things. Very sound. Very disciplined. They don’t have a lot of mistakes.”
Ward has experience defending Heisman Trophy finalist Dede Westbrook of Oklahoma and Michigan’s leading wide receiver Amara Darboh. Ward ranks tied for first on the team with nine pass breakups.
The “rushmen” package OSU utilizes on third downs in pass defense situations has arguably been one of the most dominant units in not just the Big Ten, but all of college football. Defensive linemen Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and freshman Nick Bosa have been three of OSU’s best pass rushers this season. The fourth member of that package is junior defensive end Jalyn Holmes.
Holmes ranks second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and has tallied two sacks through 12 games. The junior from Norfolk, Virginia, has been an integral part on the defensive line rotation that doesn’t seem to skip a beat if the aforementioned Hubbard or Lewis are taking a play off.
Holmes contributed to a walk-off sack at Wisconsin and started Jerome Baker’s pick-six against Oklahoma with a tipped pass that began a rout.
If OSU is to force Watson into throwing interceptions, watch for Holmes to be a key player in the pressure on Watson.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Terry McLaurin waited a year to make plays at receiver, so he resorted to special teams. There, McLaurin earned his stripes by making plays on punt and kick coverage and return. This season, McLaurin has excelled in the perimeter blocking at wideout.
In a game that is thought by most to be a toss-up, McLaurin said that special teams is an area that the Buckeyes view as a way to gain the upperhand.
“I get more exhilaration from going down there and making a tackle on punt,” McLaurin said. “Sometimes, more than the touchdowns I’ve had. I’m always a guy who just looks to make a play.”
At wide receiver, the Indianapolis native could play a huge part in the Buckeyes’ ability to move the ball on the outside with Samuel. OSU has used its speed all season to beat defenses and McLaurin’s blocking ability makes that happen