Three keys for Ohio State football's playoff rematch with Clemson

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Passing performance

The recent line of quarterbacks to lead teams to national championships includes Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson, leaving a clear takeaway. It’s difficult to get through the College Football Playoff without a premier passer. Justin Fields, the Buckeyes’ star quarterback, will need to rebound following the worst statistical performance of his career in the Big Ten championship game and rediscover the magic that once made him a top contender for the Heisman Trophy as recently as November. A healed right thumb would go a long way toward success, too.

Finishing drives

Trips inside the 20-yard line have at times been perilous for the Buckeyes in Ryan Day’s coaching tenure. In a scare against Northwestern, they reached the red zone seven times and came away with only two touchdowns. Such inadequacy was reminiscent of last season’s playoff semifinal loss to Clemson when OSU failed to score a touchdown inside the red zone, settling for three field goals in three visits, which lingered as wasted opportunities in a game ultimately decided by a six-point margin. 

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Pursuit of revenge

Since Clemson knocked Ohio State out of the playoff last December, the sting from the defeat has pushed the Buckeyes. Players have been quick to point to the loss as motivation for this fall’s national championship chase, and the 29-23 final score from the Fiesta Bowl has hung in the weight room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center as another reminder of the disappointment. Motivation is rarely in question for teams that reach this point of a season, but it could leave the Buckeyes with a particular edge in the rematch.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) can be a dangerous receiver, such as when he scored the go-ahead touchdown on a pass to help the Tigers beat Ohio State in last season's national semifinal.

Key matchup

Ohio State pass defense vs. Travis Etienne

In these teams’ semifinal meeting a year ago, Clemson running back Travis Etienne gave the Buckeyes trouble as a receiver, catching three passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns, including the 34-yard go-ahead score with less than two minutes left. Etienne is the Tigers’ third-leading receiver this fall and likely will present challenges for an Ohio State secondary that has had its ups and downs. Marcus Williamson, the starting slot corner, or Josh Proctor, a versatile safety, is likely to draw the tough assignment. Can they slow down one of the biggest X-factors in the Tigers’ passing attack?

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Key stat

Lawrence is 34-1 over three seasons as Clemson's starting quarterback, with his only loss coming in last season’s national championship game against LSU.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman