Clemson Notebook: Tigers and Ohio State Have “Blood in the Water,” Defending Justin Fields, Nolan Turner to Miss First Half

By Colin Hass-Hill on December 28, 2020 at 3:04 pm
Justin Fields
Darryl Webb, Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Network via Imagn Content Services, LLC

For eight days, Ohio State and Clemson have known they’ll meet in New Orleans on Friday with a national championship bid on the line.

So, to kick off Sugar Bowl week, they began a two-day media blitz on Monday. Before head coach Ryan Day, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and several offensive players are slated to speak to the media, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, defensive coordinator Brent Venables and a half-dozen defensive players took interview questions.

Here's a look at some of the key topics that Clemson coaches and players discussed in their first interview session of the week.

“Blood in the Water”

Is Ohio State-Clemson a rivalry? Yes or no? That’s been a topic of conversation among some for the past couple of weeks given their history, especially coming off of last year’s 29-23 Tigers win in the Fiesta Bowl.

A week ago, Swinney made the case as to why he thinks the Buckeyes are “absolutely” a rival of his program, saying it has “some type of meaning” every time the two teams meet. Baylon Spector, a redshirt junior linebacker who earned AP second-team All-ACC honors, agrees with his head coach.

To him, the Buckeyes have ascended to that status.

“We know what's on stage and the caliber of the game and what type of team they are,” Spector said. “We'll be ready. Obviously we've played them now five or six times. We'll be ready. It's definitely a rivalry. We've played them a lot and we're excited.”

If it’s a rivalry, it’s been a one-sided rivalry. Clemson has won all four all-time matchups, beating the Buckeyes 17-15 in 1978, 40-35 in 2014, 31-0 in 2016 and 29-23 in 2019. 

Fellow veteran linebacker James Skalski, despite the fact that this will be the third time in his career he’s faced the Buckeyes, doesn’t see it the same way as Swinney and Spector – though he points out that that doesn’t diminish the importance of the game.

“I wouldn't call it a rivalry,” Skalski said. “I think there's blood in the water for both of us. I don't think it's a rivalry. I think it's a seminal playoff game. It's a chance to go play for a national championship. It doesn't matter who you're playing at that point, you want to win, and they do too. There's definitely a lot of intensity brought into the game, and that could feel like a rivalry game, but I wouldn't call it that. It's a playoff game. It's to go to the big show.”

Same Ol’ Justin Fields?

Justin Fields is coming off arguably the single worst game of his college career. Against Northwestern, the junior quarterback went 12-of-27 for his first sub-50-percent completion percentage game as a Buckeye, throwing for 114 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions while also managing only 35 rushing yards on 2.9 yards per carry.

Still, despite those struggles and his three-interception performance versus Indiana, the Buckeyes rank second nationally in completion percentage (72.6), ninth in quarterback rating (174.54) and 10th in yards per attempt (9.3). Clemson, unsurprisingly, isn’t adjusting its expectations.

“It's going to be hard,” Skalski said. “You've got a Heisman-caliber player in Fields. They've got great skill. They've got great receivers. They've got great tight ends. I mean, they've got dudes everywhere. I think Northwestern did a pretty good job, and I think Ohio State just probably didn't play their best.”

A year ago, a banged-up Fields attacked the Tigers down the field, going 30-of-46 for 320 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He rushed 14 times for 13 yards in the loss.

“I don't see a whole lot different (this season),” Venables said. “He's a terrific player. Can do it all. Can run, can throw with precision, run with strength and play with great poise. He's a great leader, very natural. Got an incredible skillset. Great  presence in the pocket. And he's, without question, their leader on offense, so everything goes through him. He's a great game manager, as well. But poised and experienced and just incredibly, incredibly talented. I see more similarities than differences.”

Trey Sermon Has Their Attention

Before the Big Ten title game, Trey Sermon was a backup tailback who few people viewed as the most dangerous running back on Ohio State’s roster. He’d accumulated a grand total of 344 rushing yards across five games.

Now, after his 331-yard outburst versus Northwestern, he was the guy Clemson linebacker Mike Jones pointed out when asked who stood out to him on Ohio State’s offense.

“Of course, if you watch the last game, their running back ran for like 300 yards, so that was pretty outstanding right there,” Jones said.

Spector added: “He's a talented player. Runs very physical. Gets downhill. We're going to have to be ready for him, for sure, in the run game. And then all the things they can do off of that. Their run game, play action, stuff like that.”

What a wild, sudden ascent for the Oklahoma graduate transfer.

He spent over a month of the season seemingly unable to make defenders miss at the second level then broke a program record that had stood for 25 years. Now, Sermon is in the crosshairs of Clemson, a team that ranks fifth in the country by allowing 2.79 yards per carry and eight rushing touchdowns through 11 games. 

Given the small sample size, it’s unclear whether the fourth-year running back will be able to replicate his performance in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers, of course, aren’t overlooking Sermon after his breakthrough.

“You definitely have to pay attention to it. You can't say it's not there,” Spector said. “He's a great player. Both of their backs are really good – Master Teague. They're going to bring challenges to the game.”

Out for A Half

The miscommunication between Fields and Chris Olave that led to the game-ending interception a year ago has stuck with both the quarterback and wide receiver all these days later. Yet neither of them will have to face the defensive back who picked that fateful pass off for the first two quarters.

Nolan Turner, a USA TODAY second-team All-American safety, must sit out the first half of the Sugar Bowl due to a targeting penalty in the second half of the ACC championship game.

“It's frustrating,” Turner said. “Obviously I really want to play in this game, and I'll get to in the second half. But it's an uncontrollable for me. I can't control that. Just got to go into it coaching guys up and being supportive on the sideline and bringing in energy that we need from guys on the sideline. Looking forward to playing in that second half, but in the first half I've got to be a coach and help out and encourage guys.”

In his place, Turner pointed to Lannden Zanders and Joseph Charleston as the safeties who’ll be tasked with stepping up while he’s on the bench.

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