As a football junkie, watching hours of Clemson film over the past month has been an absolute pleasure. As an Ohio State alum, the experience hasn't been quite as enjoyable.
In total, the Tigers are clearly one of the most complete and talented teams in the country and deserve all the praise heaped upon them over the past 12 months. Though they lost a close game to Pittsburgh and kept a few games closer than they should've been, discount Dabo Swinney's Tigers at your own risk.
Though the Buckeyes possess plenty of skill and natural ability on their own, they won't simply be able to show up and push their opponents around in this Fiesta Bowl. Though talent and execution almost always trump scheme in any game, the smallest of play-calling adjustments could make the difference between teams as loaded as these two.
With that in mind, here are three key areas that I believe could help the Buckeyes come out on top in what is sure to be an epic contest between two heavyweight programs:
The QB Run Game
Good teams like Florida State and Virginia Tech that feature downhill rushing attacks saw limited success against the Tiger defense and only kept things close thanks to turnovers and trick plays. Conversely, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson likely clinched the Heisman after his performance in Death Valley, racking up 162 yards on the ground to go with 295 through the air.
Clemson safety Jadar Johnson made waves earlier this week when he said the Tigers had faced better quarterbacks then Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, but lost in the bulletin-board material was an obvious focus of his team's upcoming game plan:
"I'm not taking anything away from him, he's definitely a good player but I feel like his strong point is on his legs. If we can limit him with that we'll be able to play."
Johnson's comments have merit, as not only have Barrett's legs rescued the Buckeye offense at multiple points this season, the Tigers know what kind of damage a running quarterback can do.
Many of Jackson's rushing yards were the byproduct of pure athleticism, but the Cardinals used the Tigers' aggressive defensive philosophy against them, calling for misdirection to spring big plays. One such concept was a QB counter that looked initially like a play-action pass, with Jackson appearing to look downfield while the Tigers rushed upfield and into the path of his blockers.
While Barrett doesn't have quite the same set of wheels as Jackson, he's a strong runner between the tackles on runs like these, and the Buckeyes have become better about disguising QB counter plays as the season has gone on. While it's not always pretty, Barrett's legs turn the Buckeye offense from average to effective, and have tilted the balance in their favor during a number of games, including the most recent one.
A Varied Option Attack
Despite building his philosophy around a strong inside running game, Urban Meyer will likely avoid going directly at Clemson's massive defensive front. Much as they did in the 2014 Orange Bowl against the Tigers, we should expect the Buckeyes to attack the edges heavily in the run game, with concepts like the Buck Sweep and Lead Outside Zone.
Though the Tigers' front four is talented and athletic, they struggled to slow down Pittsburgh's horizontal ground game, tiring quickly from running to either sideline and losing run-gap integrity. No concept stressed this weakness more than one of Meyer's favorite plays: the tight end shovel-option.
The Panthers ran the concept countless times in the Tigers' sole loss of the season, picking up huge chunks of yardage as the Clemson defense consistently failed to recognize their assignments against the option. With so many different personnel groupings, alignments, and coverages, the Tigers have had problems maintaining their assignments when facing the option and it will be critical for the Buckeyes to take advantage of this inconsistency.
Grounding the Jet
No single concept has seemed to give the Buckeye defense more issues this season than the Jet-Sweep. Wisconsin receiver Jazz Peavy took six handoffs for 70 yards after going in motion across the formation before the Buckeyes finally rotated a safety down in the direction of the runner to compensate.
After a number of opponents tried to expose the OSU defense with the same scheme to no avail, Michigan State punched them right in the mouth on the opening possession. After receiver R.J. Shelton took a handoff around the end for 11 yards on the game's opening snap, running back L.J. Scott went 64 yards on a throwback screen in the opposite direction of the motion on the very next play, catching the Buckeyes completely off-guard.
While Michigan was unable to capitalize on the concept in the regular season finale one week later, there is little doubt that the success found by the Badgers and Spartans went unnoticed by the Clemson coaches. The Tigers heavily feature Jet motion in their playbook, not only building inside runs and options off it but throwing downfield off play-action after baiting the defense to come up and defend the run.
The Buckeyes must remain disciplined and communicate when they roll the safeties down to accommodate for a potential handoff coming from the motion, but most importantly, they must trust each other. Whether it's Malik Hooker, Damon Webb, Jerome Baker, or Chris Worley tasked with stepping up and containing a run around the end, the remaining 10 Buckeye defenders must still stick to their assignments.
The defensive line and linebackers inside must still fill their gaps and look for an inside handoff, the backside defenders must look for cutbacks and misdirection plays, and the secondary must honor a downfield release from any one of the Tigers' talented wideouts.
The Tigers are too talented for this once-young defense to cheat out of position just to take away one concept. But this matchup of units isn't one-sided from a physical standpoint. Players like Malik Hooker, Raekwon McMillan, and Tyquan Lewis are as good as anyone Clemson has seen all year, and they're most certainly up to the physical challenge at hand. If they're also up to the task mentally, it'll go a long way toward making it to Tampa.