Inside the Box: Quarterback Duel, Mistakes in the Red Zone, Defensive Breakdowns

By Jake Anderson on December 30, 2019 at 2:35 pm
Justin Fields

For the second time in four years and the third time in seven years, Ohio State has fallen to Clemson.

Despite Ohio State seemingly outplaying Clemson for the majority of the game (the Buckeyes had a post-game win expectancy of 59%), the Tigers clawed their way back into the game, defeating the Bucks 23-29 in the Fiesta Bowl. 

In today's Inside the Box, we'll take a look at the first round of the Fields versus Lawrence duel, Clemson's bend-don't-break philosophy beat the Buckeyes' hot red zone offense, and the defense's struggles to stop big plays despite outstanding games from the secondary. 

Quarterback Duel

Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence's legacies will always be tied together. Everything from the proximity of their hometowns to their legendary Elite 11 showdowns and recruitment laments this association.

In the Fiesta Bowl, the two had their first head-to-head matchup. And unfortunately for Ohio State, Lawrence took round one. 

Despite the archetypes each signal-caller is often placed in (Lawrence as a pure pocket-passer and Fields as a dual-threat), the two seemingly switched roles on Saturday night. The Clemson sophomore passed for 259 yards and two touchdowns but did most of his damage on the ground, running for over 100 yards for the first time in his career. Fields, on the other hand, passed for 320 yards and a touchdown and had a number of perfect throws, from this Austin Mack catch to the Chris Olave touchdown

Ohio State greatly missed a healthy Justin Fields as his running ability was a major factor in the team's extensive red zone success. He pulled just one read in the entire game and was not the runner he had been all season long. 

Clemson's Bend-Don't-Break Philosophy 

Ohio State's offense, for the most part, outplayed its opponent's defense. Brent Venables, Clemson's defensive coordinator, brought out every blitz and coverage in the book to try and slow down Fields the local team's offense, yet the Buckeyes still recorded eight drives of 50+ yards. 

The Tigers' strength, however, came when their back was against the wall. Clemson's red zone defense has been strong all season long, allowing a touchdown on just 35.71% of its opponents' red zone possessions, the third-best mark in the nation.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, have been one of the best red zone teams in the nation, ranking fifth in red zone touchdown percentage. Inside the 25-yard line with a constrained field around them, Clemson was able to hold Ohio State to just nine points on four trips. It was the Buckeyes' worst red zone performance of the season. 

Red Zone Offense per Game
The darker the bar, the more red zone trips.

In those four missed opportunities, the Bucks had two dropped passes, including one in the end zone, and a missed communication that led to a game-sealing interception. In a battle of strengths, Clemson's defense held as Ohio State's offense faltered. 

Secondary Shines as Linebackers Struggle

One of the greatest secondaries in Ohio State history has played its final game together. The tandem of Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller, Jeff Okudah, and Shaun Wade could all be drafted in this season's NFL Draft, with at least three of the four going on the first two days. 

Against Clemson, the back four held Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, two of the best wide receivers in the nation, to a combined 10 receptions for 80 yards on 19 targets. The dynamic duo recorded a catch rate of just 52.6% and had one of their worst collective games of the season. 

The linebackers, however, struggled against Clemson's complicated offense. Two of Lawrence's three biggest completions came from passes with under five yards, starting with Etienne's screen and then followed by the sophomore's jump pass. The linebackers were nowhere to be found on either play. 

Both parties, however, are to blame for allowing Clemson to rattle off explosive plays like clockwork. Before the game, Ohio State was allowing just under three plays of 20+ yards per game. Clemson doubled that mark. 

Number of Big Plays

A year ago, giving up six plays of 20+ yards was a weekly occurrence. This season, it was not just an outlier, but a game-breaker. Ohio State's defense was staunch for most of the game, allowing them to drive down the field just once. The Tigers' explosive plays kept them in a game that they were being thoroughly outplayed in. 

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