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Ohio State pass defense set for season's biggest test against Clemson's Trevor Lawrence

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) promises to test an Ohio State secondary that struggled at times in pass coverage this season.

In Ohio State’s truncated season, every moment is magnified. Good, bad, indifferent.

But none of OSU’s performances this season has been scrutinized as much as a game against Indiana in mid-November.

While the Buckeyes prevailed over the Hoosiers in a 42-35 win, Michael Penix Jr. sliced their secondary, throwing for 491 yards and five touchdowns. Only three quarterbacks had ever passed for more yards in a game against them.

It could be a warning sign of the challenge that awaits Ohio State in the College Football Playoff, a semifinal rematch against Clemson on Friday night in the Sugar Bowl.

If Penix could throw for so many yards against the Buckeyes, what will Trevor Lawrence, hailed as a generational quarterback prospect, do to them?

“We’re going to be ready,” cornerback Shaun Wade said. “At the end of the day, Indiana has a great quarterback like Trevor Lawrence is a great quarterback. They both put the ball in the right spot at the right time. Both teams have great receivers. Now we have to just keep getting better, and we’ve been getting better over the weeks just to get ready for this game.”

In the two games that followed their win over Indiana, the Buckeyes showed signs of improvement.

They held Michigan State quarterbacks Rocky Lombardi and Payton Thorne to less than 200 passing yards. And against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship, Peyton Ramsey, an effective game manager, had his second-least-efficient performance of the season.

Ohio State intercepted two passes in each of those games and did not allow a touchdown through the air.

But none of those quarterbacks is as gifted as either Lawrence or Penix, leaving some question over how well-prepared OSU will be for a talented passer and a potent offensive attack.

Ohio State players are optimistic that there has been progress over the past six weeks, even though they have been on the field for only two games. Linebacker Pete Werner said strides have been made in practice.

“We’ve had a lot to practice on,” Werner said. “We’ve seen our issues on film. We've worked well with that. We’ve been working as a team defense, and the chemistry that is being built over time is showing.

“I just can't wait to show the nation, show everybody that it has paid off, we've bounced back from the issues that have come up.”

The Buckeyes entered this season thin on experience in their secondary. Wade, who moved from slot corner to outside corner, was the sole returning starter back for Kerry Coombs, who returned to OSU as defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

But Lawrence also relies on a different supporting cast. Running back Travis Etienne has remained a significant threat in the passing game, but neither Tee Higgins nor Justyn Ross is lining up wide. Higgins left for the NFL, while Ross has been sidelined throughout the fall because of a spine condition.

Without them, Lawrence has looked to Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell as his prime targets. Though not lauded as high-level draft prospects, both are seniors with experience.

Clemson’s passing offense has ranked in the top 10 throughout the fall, averaging about 50 more yards per game this season than last.

Wade still sees the receivers as dangerous weapons for Lawrence, noting their veteran status.

“They always have great players,” he said.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman