The Clemson defense has been largely stout this season – though susceptible to big plays.
One area where the Tigers have been vulnerable is against running quarterbacks, creating an opportunity for Braxton Miller and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Expect Clemson to bring an additional defender in the box against the Ohio State run game, but that may open opportunities for Miller.
The Tigers' defense has also been vulnerable in the underneath zones, creating an opportunity for Ohio State to reinvigorate their pass game.
Below I address Clemson's defensive efficiency, where the Tigers' have been vulnerable, and the potential Buckeye response.
Efficient With a Catch
At 13th in Football Outsiders' F/+ F/rankings, the Clemson defense is actually marginally higher ranked then the Tigers offense. By comparison, Ohio State's offense is second, while the Buckeye defense is just 35th. The Ohio State offense represents the second highest ranked unit Clemson will face this year (Florida State is first).
The Tiger's defense, led by Vic Beasley, has thrived at creating negative plays, leading the country with 9.42 tackles for loss per game. But the Clemson defense is held back from being better by the amount of points it allows per possession. As Chad Peltier writes, the Tigers only allow five plays per possession but 1.51 points. So the Tigers are very good at getting off the field, but give up over a half a point more per possession than top five F/+ defenses Michigan State, Alabama, and Florida State. This indicates that the Tigers are susceptible to surrendering explosive plays.
One area where the Tigers have struggled is against mobile quarterbacks. Connor Shaw rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown in South Carolina's 31-17 win. Shaw's yards came not only in the zone read game, but also scrambling. In particular, Shaw gained yards against Clemson's underneath man coverage schemes.
This puts Clemson in a bind against Ohio State. Defensive Coordinator Brett Venables often deploys cover 1 to get an additional defender in the box against the run. And Clemson has not faced as good a running team as the Buckeyes. But cover 1 leaves the Tigers vulnerable to Miller's running ability. Likewise, Venables cannot play his preferred cover 2, man under on third and long without opening the defense to big scrambles by Miller.
Look for Urban Meyer and Tom Herman to feature Miller running early with lead quarterback runs, providing an additional blocker against the Tigers' additional box defender. It will be interesting to watch what coverage framework Venables deploys to address both Carlos Hyde and Miller.
Clemson's propensity for allowing explosive plays also results from a weakness in the Tigers' middle of the field underneath coverage. As discussed, Florida State repeatedly exploited Clemson's underneath zones. The Seminoles' tight ends and wide receivers got open against the Tigers' underneath defenders and then gained chunk yards after the catch.
Florida State then pushed the football down field in the deep middle, resulting in big plays against the Tigers' secondary.
Whether the Buckeyes can exploit this vulnerability remains to be seen. The Ohio State passing game regressed in recent weeks, primarily as a result of an inconsistent underneath and intermediate passing attack. Herman intimated this resulted both from injuries at wide receiver – primarily to Corey Brown – as well as the effectiveness of Michigan State's press quarters' coverage.
Look for the Buckeyes to have used bowl practice to re-invigorate this aspect of its offense. Expect Ohio State to target deep crossing and seam routes off play-action and packaged plays to try to exploit Clemson's relative weakness.
The Battle of Explosiveness
In sum, Clemson has demonstrated an ability to get off the field but also a vulnerability to explosive plays. To protect their defense, the Buckeye offense must limit three and outs. This will largely come down to preventing negative plays. Ohio State's offensive line, led by Jack Mewhort, is well positioned to block Beasley and company. The Buckeye first down passing game must be more efficient then it was against Michigan State to limit second and long situations.
The Buckeyes must also win the explosive plays plus turnover battle. Creating explosive plays has been a strength of the Ohio State offense all season, and that trend must continue for the Buckeyes to have success in the Orange Bowl.