SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The mirror does not lie, which means when Ohio State stares into the looking glass it sees Clemson. The Buckeyes and Tigers share nearly duplicate traits on both sides of the ball.
How then to defeat a 13-0 replica of yourself? I’ve singled out the two keys to No. 2 Ohio State finally breaking through against No. 3 Clemson, which owns a 3-0 record against the Buckeyes.
The first key addresses where OSU can take advantage of its identical twin. The second key addresses a Buckeyes vulnerability, which if not strengthened could lead to a long Saturday night in the Fiesta Bowl and another disappointing loss to the Tigers. Dozens of details factor into wins and losses. Still, I see these two areas of focus determining the outcome.
• Ohio State’s running game
As much as Ryan Day gets hailed as an aggressive play-caller, the Ohio State coach understands the importance of building a balanced offense. He also pays attention to analytics, which reveal a persuasive statistic: The team with more rushing yards has won 12 of the 15 playoff games; and 12 have been won by the team with higher average yards per carry. Teams that hold a comfortable lead tend to run the ball more often, which skews the yard-per-game numbers. But the yards-per-carry statistic reinforces the importance of finishing games with an advantage in that category.
Applying run-game analytics to the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State enters State Farm Stadium with an edge. The Buckeyes rank fifth nationally with 272.2 yards per game and sixth with 5.67 yards per carry. They’ve also posted impressive numbers against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, which all rank in the top 20 of yards per carry allowed. Ohio State has rushed for at least 200 yards in every game except the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin.
Clemson’s defense is no slouch against the run. The Tigers rank ninth both in yards allowed per game (106.2) and yards allowed per attempt (2.97), but the Tigers are about to face a tailback in J.K. Dobbins the likes of which they have not seen.
“How he didn’t make it to New York, if that’s the case then I don’t know what a good football player looks like,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “He’s a tough, physical matchup.”
Only one Clemson opponent, Boston College, ranks in the top 20 in rushing yards per game, while none of the Tigers’ opponents ranks in the top 20 in yards per carry.
What’s it all mean? Ohio State needs to assert itself early with its run game against a defense that has leaned more heavily this season on stopping the pass. Clemson had a stellar defensive line last season, but three of the linemen went in the first round of the NFL draft. Venables has adjusted by dabbling with a funky 3-2-6 scheme, hoping the Tigers are great against the pass and good enough against the run.
Venables’ strategy has worked well; the Tigers lead the nation in pass defense. But if Dobbins runs as effectively as he has all season — 6.5 yards per attempt — Clemson may need to sub out a defensive back for an extra defender in the box. If that happens, the back end opens for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to take shots downfield, the kind of balance Day wants.
“This is a very unique offense,” Day said. “It puts a lot of stress on defenses because you can do things a lot of different ways.”
• Ohio State pass blocking/Fields release time
If the Buckeyes have a weakness, it is shaky pass protection that further deteriorates when Fields holds the ball too long. Ohio State ranks 103rd in sacks allowed (31) and 68th in tackles for loss allowed, according to cfbstats.com. Clemson is good at getting to the QB, ranking 15th in sacks (38). The Tigers are eighth in tackles for loss (102).
Fields needs more time to find receivers, especially if his sprained knee limits his mobility. The sophomore also needs to get rid of the ball quicker.
“The No. 1 thing to be successful (in pass protection) is communication between us and J.K., and us being able to identify what they’re going to throw at us,” left guard Jonah Jackson said. “It’s knowing things before they happen, understanding their tendencies.”
Center Josh Myers understands the challenge ahead.
“They’ve run a ton of different looks, a ton of different blitzes and I’m going to have to be prepared for all of it,” Myers said of Clemson. “But to be honest, there hasn’t been a whole lot that we haven’t seen this season.”
One thing Ohio State has not seen is a mirror image of itself. The Buckeyes need to exploit the subtle differences. Running the ball effectively and keeping Clemson off Fields is a good place to begin.