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Buckeyes defense answers the challenge after shaky start

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State's defense looked like it was headed for a long night early in Friday's Sugar Bowl against Clemson.

The Tigers needed less than three minutes to go 88 yards for a game-opening touchdown and then had four plays of 15 or 16 yards on their third possession to take a 14-7 lead in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

But after that, the Buckeyes' defense took over, allowing only two more touchdowns while the Ohio State offense ripped through Clemson's defense in a 49-28 win.

“We knew Clemson was one of the best offenses in the country,” said senior linebacker Tuf Borland, who was named the game's defensive Most Valuable Player after making eight tackles. “We couldn’t get down on ourselves. We couldn’t lose confidence in what we were doing. Throughout this whole process, I think it shows the character of this group to bounce back like that, stick with it and continue to play. Good things happened.”

The Buckeyes were particularly stout against the run. Explosive running back Travis Etienne was held to 32 yards in 10 carries. His longest run was for 8 yards.

“It was very important to us,” defensive end Jonathon Cooper said of making Clemson one-dimensional. “Obviously, Etienne is a great running back. He's fast, elusive and he runs hard. We put a big emphasis all week in practice on containing him and stopping the run.”

Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (72) brings down Clemson running back Travis Etienne in the first quarter. The Buckeyes limited Etienne to 32 yards rushing in their 49-28 victory.

Ohio State also contained quarterback Trevor Lawrence as a runner. In last year's CFP semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, he had a 67-yard touchdown run that started Clemson's comeback from a 16-0 deficit. On Friday, his longest carry was for 11 yards.

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“We really pride ourselves on stopping the run,” defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “Our (defensive line) group is named, 'The Rushmen,' and a lot of people think that just means getting sacks but no. Our goal every week is to keep a team under 100 yards rushing. We know when we do, we win the game.”

After falling behind, Clemson mostly abandoned the run game, and Lawrence did some damage with his arm. That's to be expected for a quarterback regarded as a lock to be the first pick in the NFL draft. He completed 33 of 48 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns against a Buckeyes secondary that has endured growing pains this year.

But every time it looked as if Clemson might seriously threaten Ohio State in the second half, the Buckeyes answered the challenge. Defensive end Tyreke Smith had a strip sack of Lawrence and then forced a fourth-down incompletion with his pressure with Ohio State leading by three touchdowns in the middle of the fourth quarter.

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Cornerback Sevyn Banks intercepted a pass in the end zone to thwart a Clemson drive in its next possession.

It was a far different ending than beginning.

“I just feel we got into a rhythm,” Cooper said. “When you first go out there, you don't know how fast the game is going to be. Then when you settle down and see what they're doing, the game slows down and you can play your technique.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch