Eleven Warriors Roundtable: Buckeyes Look to Punch Tampa Ticket with Win Over Clemson

By 11W Staff on December 30, 2016 at 10:10 am
Ohio State could use a few big plays from Malik Hooker against Clemson.

Urban Meyer sports a career 10-2 record in postseason play with one of the those blemishes coming at the hands of Dabo Swinney and Clemson back in January 2014. 

Tomorrow night, Meyer gets a chance to exact revenge on the Swinney and Tigers in a College Football Playoff semifinal kicking off at 7 p.m. ET in Glendale, Arizona. 

Doing so would vault Ohio State into the national championship game and give the Buckeyes a shot at a second national title in the last three seasons. 

Despite being a three-point favorite however, much of the talk this week has centered on whether or not Ohio State will be able to move the ball through the air against the Tigers and how the Buckeye defense will slow down Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson. 

So how will the Buckeyes fare at protecting Barrett and slowing Watson? Will the receivers gain any separation? 

For answers to those questions and more we turn to a stacked roundtable featuring King of the Beat, Eric Seger, the Oliver Stone of Film Study, Kyle Jones, and the Father of Five Things, Chris Lauderback to their seats. 

Drop the knowledge, gents. 

Most games, especially big ones, are decided in the trenches.With that in mind, Ohio State fans are rightfully concerned about the offensive line’s ability to keep J.T. Barrett upright in the pocket against a fierce Clemson pass rush. How does this matchup play out? Will the OSU line give Barrett time to throw often enough for the Buckeye passing attack to be relevant?

Eric: Clemson defensive coordinator and Broyles Award winner Brent Venables is going to stir up some creative blitzes cooked up to toy with the minds of Ohio State's offensive linemen, and you have to think Isaiah Prince is going to be a prime target. We are going to find out early in the game if Ohio State intends to keep a running back or tight end in to assist Prince against Clemson's talented front four, especially ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell.

I think J.T. Barrett is excellent at escaping pressure in the pocket and will find some success doing so against the Tigers like he normally does but he is also going to get hit a ton. Clemson is too deep and fast on the defensive line and Ohio State's pass protection has been spotty this season. The Buckeyes need to be balanced if they hope to win the game but I believe they will revert to running the ball a ton with Barrett, Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber. That likely will not end well for Ohio State.

Kyle: Regardless of what OSU tries, we'll know if it worked pretty quickly. Isaiah Prince has been a 'rhythm' player this year, with early issues starting a snowball effect later in the game. If he's able to hold his own early, that will go a long way toward keeping Barrett upright. That said, the Buckeyes must find ways to get the ball out of Barrett's hands quickly. The Tigers can bring dozens of different blitzes, so it's on the coaches to make the Tiger secondary work to make sure Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown are properly covered, so I wouldn't be surprised to see new formations and a lot of variations in tempo from the Buckeye offense.

Chris: We've heard a lot of talk about how hard Isaiah Prince has worked since the Michigan game to shore up his pass blocking. I hope to be proven wrong but I struggle to think we'll see stark improvement over that duration that we didn't see from August to late November.

As such, I think Ohio State has to pull some tricks out of the play-calling bag and focus on shorter routes like hitches, slants and screens to try and neutralize Clemson's advantage in passing downs.

Keeping focus on the slobs, Ohio State’s rushing attack enters the game ranked 9th in the land at 258 yards per game while the Tiger defense allows 125 yards per game, good for 22nd nationally. Can the Buckeyes potentially render the need to pass less meaningful by churning out yards on the ground? What’s the key to a successful rushing night or Ohio State?

Chris: Ohio State has to be able to pass to win this game but I do think they can obviously offset the need to be super productive through the air if they can run the ball and stay out of obvious passing situations. If anything, I'd like to see Ohio State be more aggressive in looking to throw on 1st down to try and keep Clemson guessing.

I have confidence in Ohio State's ability to run the ball but I think it will help to not be so obvious about what's coming based on down and distance. I'd love to see Curtis Samuel be a bigger factor in the run game this week with simply getting more touches but also in trying to get him to the edges of Clemson's defense.

Eric: The short answer here is yes, mostly because that is what Ohio State for the most part has been doing all season. J.T. Barrett's passing statistics aren't spectacular but they aren't terrible either. We all know how the Buckeyes move the ball and win football games: by running the dang ball. Clemson's defensive line spearheads a unit that ranks third nationally in tackles for loss with 112. Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins are monsters and young pup Dexter Lawrence is a handful on the interior.

In order for the Buckeyes to have success on Saturday night running the ball, they must get Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel and Barrett to the second level. Clemson's linebackers are one of the weaker spots of its defense. If Ohio State can run downhill with zone concepts and pick up some chunk yardage while using tempo, that should help it move the sticks on the ground.

Kyle: Getting Curtis Samuel involved on outside runs will be crucial, as will J.T. Barrett on designed carries inside. The Buckeye offense goes from average to nearly unstoppable when he's able to find seams on the ground, because it forces the defense to keep extra defenders inside, giving someone like Samuel room to work on the edges.

Ohio State should look to get Curtis Samuel the ball via outside runs against Clemson.

Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson comes in averaging over 300 passing yards per outing albeit with a 37/15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Will Ohio State’s defense be able to not only get pressure on Watson but also confuse him and create a turnover or two? What kind of night should we expect from Watson and the talented Tiger receivers?

Kyle: The Buckeye defensive front must be dominant in this game in order to advance. Watson takes few sacks, thanks to his size and running ability, but pressure can force him into bad decisions. The matchup between the talented OSU secondary and the Clemson wideouts should be much more even than it was in 2014, and if Watson is willing to throw the ball into dangerous windows, this ballhawking group of DBs could feast. If he's able to throw from a clean pocket, however, it may be a long night once again for the Buckeye defense.

Chris: This matchup comes down to two things. One, can the defensive line get pressure without the aid of a blitz so the Buckeyes have extra guys in coverage. Two, can the non-marquee guys like Damon Webb, Damon Arnette, Denzel Ward and Chris Worley avoid getting picked on in coverage. Watson will surely take some shots in the direction of guys like Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley but with so many weapons, Watson would be wise to look to expose Ohio State's lesser guys in coverage, as we've some other teams do such as Northwestern with Austin Carr.

I think the Buckeye defense will do just enough to make this game a toss-up coming down to the last possession.

Eric: As much as I think the game will be decided between Ohio State's offensive line and its Clemson counterpart, whether or not Malik Hooker and the secondary can make a play or two in the passing game against Watson is just as important. Really the only reason Clemson has been in any close game this season is because the Tigers love to turn it over and give their opponents more chances. Mike Williams is an outstanding receiver and Watson is armed with a host of other toys on offense like Jordan Leggett at tight end and speedsters Deon Cain and Artavis Bryant at receiver. I believe Ohio State's defense line has the stuff to get pressure on Watson—the guys in front of him have struggled at times this season to protect him consistently.

Watson will get his because he is exceptional but if he challenges Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and the other stars in Ohio State's secondary they will make him pay. I expect at least one interception from that unit but Clemson is still going to have some success through the air.

Barrett and Watson are the unquestioned leaders of their respective offenses but each will need to help to put their team in the winner’s circle. Give us another skill guy or each team you expect to have a big night and why.

Eric: I like Mike Weber for Ohio State and Jordan Leggett for Clemson. Weber's brilliant freshman campaign sometimes gets overshadowed by Curtis Samuel and J.T. Barrett, which is not his fault at all. But if he can get to the second level and make Clemson's linebackers miss a tackle or two, picking up chunk yards will help Barrett immensely in the passing game. Weber needs his touches just as much as anybody.

Leggett is a matchup nightmare for defenses, a big-bodied tight end with great hands and athleticism. There is no doubt Clemson saw on tape the struggles Damon Webb has had this season both against slot receivers and tight ends, so I predict Clemson offensive coordinators Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott to try and create situations where the Ohio State safety is matched up with Leggett. If that happens, advantage Tigers.

Kyle: I've already written about the prominent role tight end Jordan Leggett has in the Clemson offense, but I expect Marcus Baugh to have a big night of his own. He's shown he's a capable receiver and with the Buckeyes needing a third weapon to emerge alongside Samuel and Brown in the passing game, he's a much more likely candidate than some freshman wideout. On the Clemson side, running back Wayne Gallman seems to be flying under the radar due to Watson and all the talented receivers. However, he's tallied over 1,000 yards on the ground in each of the past two seasons, and will likely see plenty of carries in the Fiesta Bowl as the Buckeyes focus on Watson.

Chris: For Ohio State, I think either Marcus Baugh or K.J. Hill will step up to give Ohio State's pass game a boost. I think Urban Meyer could look to leverage Baugh in the middle of Clemson's defense as I'm not sold on the Tiger linebackers from a coverage standpoint. Otherwise, I think Hill is a guy who is going to eventually emerge as a playmaker for the Buckeyes and maybe tomorrow is where that truly starts as Clemson focuses more heavily on containing Samuel and Noah Brown.

For Clemson, Leggett scares me to death because I believe Webb to be the weakest link on Ohio State's starting defense and I expect the Tigers to try and get Ohio State into that matchup which could be big time trouble.

Ohio State’s coaching staff will undergo a shakeup whenever the season ends with Luke Fickell headed to Cincinnati and Bill Davis taking a defensive assistant spot. There could also be more changes as names like Ed Warinner and Tim Beck have been batted around for gigs of varying levels in addition to the annual talk of whether or not Zach Smith might be shown the door. What level of concern do you have, if any, on items like these creating a distraction ahead of the game? What’s your best guess on if any other assistants leave the program after the season is complete?

Chris: I can't say I'm concerned about distraction just because we've seen this play out before with Ohio State's staff and it didn't seem to be an issue. Regardless of your opinion on Luke Fickell, the guy is a pro who bleeds Ohio State so I'm sure he's been as focused as he needs to be on the task at hand.

As for who else might leave, we've heard Ed Warinner's name kicked around for gigs but who knows how that will pan out. I'm more interested to see if Meyer will ever address the issue with his wide receivers coach. Zach Smith is more famous for embarrassing himself on Twitter than for developing talent at this point and if you believe a quarter of the rumors that persist about him off the field, you probably are fine with him moving on though he is a stud recruiter and Meyer values that above all else. What might help Smith is that with the other staff shakeups, Meyer may also value another year of continuity at this spot.

Eric: I don't think there should be any concern about coaching rumors within the Ohio State program before the Fiesta Bowl. This is the College Football Playoff, a national championship is at stake and these guys are professionals. If they let their prospective future positions get in the way of preparation, they shouldn't even be considered for what is next in their career in my opinion.

Fickell is going to be a great fit at Cincinnati and deserves his shot there. I think Greg Schiano is locked into being the defensive coordinator in Columbus next season, though his NFL history will certainly result in his name getting tossed around as the axe falls on more coaches at that level. If there is an assistant that I think could be gone by next season after taking another job, I think it will either be Warinner or Smith. The lack of production from Smith's unit is obvious and Warinner's name keeps popping up amid rumors all across the sport.

Kyle: The looming #HTownTakeover didn't seem to bother this team two years ago when Tom Herman was wearing multiple hats, so my guess is those changes will have little effect on this matchup. However, there is always another round of coaching musical chairs in January after NFL teams make their round of hiring and firings, so there could very well be an opportunity for someone like Warinner to run a program of his own next fall.

Luke Fickell moves on to the head coaching role in Cincinnati once Ohio State's playoff run is complete.

Special teams played a big part in the outcome the last time these two teams met with Philly Brown muffed a punt triggering Clemson’s rally. Is there any particular aspect of either team’s special units you feel really good or bad about? You still in Fight Club’s corner? Any concern with Ohio State’s punt return situation this time around?

Kyle: I absolutely expect both teams to implement some kind of gadget play on special teams. Both coaching staffs have had a month to study each other on tape, and there's no doubt they've each found some weakness they think they can exploit. Look out for an aggressive, new kick-blocking scheme from the Tigers as well as some wrinkles in the Buckeye return game.

Chris: Like everyone, I feel really good about Ohio State's edge in punting with Cameron Johnston especially compared to Clemson's punter, Andy Teasdall. Johnston is 6th in the nation at 45.3 yards per punt while Clemson is 118th with a 37.8 yard average. The Buckeyes also have a nice edge in kickoff returns and knowing field position is a big deal in every game, I like the sizeable advantages the Buckeyes have in these areas.

I'm not too worried about Tyler Durbin. Yes, he had a bad game versus Michigan and I'm sure the pressure was a factor but he's been through that now and should be ready.

As for punt return, I just want Samuel to fair catch everything. Any actual punt return yards will be gravy. I'm still amazed that Meyer has had nothing but high-wire acts on punt return since he's been here when you consider his recruiting prowess but that's where we're at.

Eric: Ohio State's punt return situation should be fine because Curtis Samuel is handling those duties and his ball skills are terrific. I think Tyler Durbin will be fine despite his horrid game against Michigan but would be lying if I said there wasn't at least a flicker of concern for the sole reason he is a walk-on kicking in the biggest game of his life. Clemson's punt team isn't exactly stout at least statistically, averaging 37.8 yards per boot. If there was ever a time where the Buckeyes could make a play in that part of the game, this feels like it.

On the other side of the semifinals, Alabama stands as a 15-point favorite against Washington. How will things shake out? Does Washington have a chance to make it interesting or will the Crimson Tide coast into the title game?

Eric: Alabama rolls in relatively easy fashion, I think. Jake Browning is a great player and Chris Petersen's track record in games that he had more than a month to prepare for is tremendous (see: Boise State from 2006-13) but the Huskies have never seen a defensive line and front seven like Alabama. Browning had success this year throwing vertically and he will need to do that for Washington to have a shot at dethroning the Tide and Nick Saban. But I just don't think he will have time to get the ball out of his hands and down the field due to the pressure he is set to face in the pocket. I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I would put money on the Tide covering.

Kyle: If I were a betting man, I'd gladly take the Huskies with that spread. Washington's defense is for real, and the Tide is running a simplified scheme for freshman QB Jalen Hurts. Though the Tide's defense is probably too much for them to overcome, the Huskies have a duo of home run threats in John Ross and Dante Pettis, and they only need one miscue to make the Tide pay. All that said, the depth of talent on Alabama's roster is unmatched, and they'll win a game that's much closer than people expect.

Chris: I won't pretend I've seen Washington play much this year though I've seen Bama at least five or six times. As a betting man, I'm staying away from this game because I don't have a good feel for it at all.

On one hand, I can see Washington's offense making some plays against what I think is a very good defense that has maybe been hyped up a little because of the inferior competition the Crimson Tide faced in conference. On the other, Nick Saban is the best recruiter in the country and that roster provides a talent edge that I don't think Washington can overcome.

I'll go with Alabama winning by 17 mostly because I think they could wear down the Huskies late and score a touchdown in the waning minutes providing a backdoor cover of sorts.

Finally, the Buckeyes are still a 3-point favorite over the Tigers. Will Urban exact revenge for the Orange Bowl loss to Dabo’s Tigers? Give us your final score and game MVP. 

Chris: I love Urban's track record in bowl games but at the end of the day I'm just not sold on Prince or the wide receivers making enough progress over the last month to pull out the win. The total offense simply hasn't looked good for too many stretches against better competition to have me think they can outscore Clemson, even with the respect I have for the Buckeye defense. I'm going Clemson 31, Ohio State 28.

Eric: Urban Meyer is brilliant at pressing the right buttons on his team ahead of bowl games. His team has been incredibly loose and excited for the College Football Playoff, even though it is playing a fantastic opponent in Clemson. It is often futile to bet against him in games where he has had a ton of time to prepare but I'm going to do it anyways.

I just think Clemson has too much firepower on offense (and Ohio State doesn't) for the Buckeyes to score enough to keep pace. It will be close down to the final drive, however, with MVP Deshaun Watson running out the clock to preserve a close victory. My pick: Clemson 31, Ohio State 27.

Kyle: I hate to say it, but Clemson has more talent than the Buckeyes, and at the most critical positions. The Tigers have too much firepower offensively to be held in check (yes, even more than Oklahoma),  and their defensive front could cause nightmares for the slobs in scarlet and gray.

Even though the OSU offense looks good in stretches, they can't keep up, thanks in large part to pressure coming from defensive end Christian Wilkins on the right side. Clemson wins 34-31.

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