SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Of all the matchups in Ohio State’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, one might be the most intriguing.
Clemson has a passing game featuring quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 player from the 2018 recruiting class. He led the Tigers to the national championship a year ago and hasn’t lost a game in two seasons. His top receivers, Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, have combined for 107 catches, 1,824 yards and 21 touchdowns. They lit up Alabama in last year’s 44-16 title game romp.
Ohio State has a secondary featuring standouts at every position. Cornerback Jeff Okudah was a Thorpe Award finalist and projects to be a high first-round pick if he declares for the NFL draft as expected. He and safety Jordan Fuller were first-team all-Big Ten. Cornerback Damon Arnette was second-team and Shaun Wade third-team.
Factor in a pass rush led by Chase Young, and Ohio State’s No. 2 national ranking (behind Clemson) in defensive pass efficiency is no fluke.
For both teams, it’ll be a test like they haven’t faced.
“I'm anxious to see what I can do against them,” Okudah said Tuesday. “I know a lot of guys in the secondary are. Talking to Shaun and Damon last night, they were just really excited for this moment. It's a big chance to show what BIA is capable of doing.”
BIA stands for Best in America, a designation the Buckeyes strive for, along with DBU for Defensive Back University. When Okudah lost the Thorpe Award to LSU’s Grant Delpit, ESPN’s Chris Fowler listed several schools that could be considered the country’s best DBU. He didn’t mention Ohio State. The Buckeyes noticed.
“It's something that adds a charge to the game,” Okudah said. “Saturday is coming soon, so we have a chance to show that we're really BIA. Obviously, you don't want to be omitted from a debate like that. But they feel like we haven't earned it. I guess we’ve got to show them that we've earned it.”
It won’t be easy. Lawrence can make every throw and has confidence that his receivers will make plays on contested balls. Both Higgins and Ross are 6 feet 4 and have range that makes them seem even bigger.
But Clemson hasn’t played a defense ranked in the top 25 in pass defensive efficiency all season. Lawrence knows Ohio State will be a challenge for him and his receivers.
“The windows will be a little tighter, and downfield the one-on-one matchups will be a little tougher to win,” he said. “But I really have faith in our guys.
“They have really good players over there, too, but so do we. So it's always interesting to see that clash in a big game — who wins that battle.”
Okudah and Ohio State defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison said the Buckeyes will have to mix their coverages. That’s something the new coaching staff, spearheaded by Jeff Hafley, has done this season. Okudah said opposing coaches have said at the end of games that they couldn’t decipher the Buckeyes’ coverages at times.
Hafley was hired last week as Boston College’s head coach, but Okudah said the coach is all-in for the Buckeyes’ title quest before he departs.
Mattison cautioned that the Buckeyes must also slow Clemson’s running game featuring Travis Etienne, who has run for 1,500 yards. But he knows the marquee matchup is OSU’s pass defense against Lawrence and the Tigers’ elite receivers.
“There’s no question it is,” Mattison said. “We’re going to have to be on our ‘A’ game, but when you get in a game like this, that's what you do. We didn't get here by not being able to do that, and our guys know that. Now you're just having to take another step up the ladder.”