The countdown continues.
As we inch closer and closer to Ohio State's rematch with Clemson in the College Football Playoff, Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and six Clemson players – including Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers – fielded questions from the media on Tuesday about the long-awaited postseason battle.
Here's a look at some of the highlights that they discussed as we sit three days away from their showdown in New Orleans:
“More Beef With Us Than We Have With Them”
It’s been talked about and dissected over the past couple of years, and it’s one of the more fascinating storylines of this CFP rematch:
Is Ohio State-Clemson a rivalry?
What’s making it more intriguing is the divide in the Tigers’ locker room on the answer to that question – one that’s been posed a few times over the past two days to Clemson’s contingent. As we’ve hit on, the Buckeyes are 0-4 against their South Carolina foes.
Apparently, Clemson’s command of the all-time series (especially recently) has some in the Tigers’ program believing that it’s not just a one-sided matchup on the scoreboards.
“Not to me, to be honest,” Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers said when asked if he views Ohio State as a rival. “It feels nothing like the South Carolina rivalry or any other games that we may see as a rivalry. I feel like they have more beef with us than we have with them. That’s really more on them, to be honest. I don’t really see it as a rivalry, to be honest. It’s just one of those teams that we’ve happened to play a lot since I’ve been here. They’re great games every single time, but I don’t see it as a rivalry.”
While his own head coach has said Ohio State is “absolutely” a rival, some of Rodgers’ teammates differ in their view of the Buckeyes.
That includes Cincinnati native Matt Bockhorst, who signed with Clemson as a four-star guard out of St. Xavier in 2017 and became the program’s first Ohio signee since Cole Stoudt in 2011.
“I have a bunch of friends who go to Ohio State and a ton of guys that I went to high school with or knew otherwise,” Bockhorst said. “So it’s definitely interesting. I think there’s some bragging rights on the line. It’s a passionate rivalry. You’re talking about two of the marquee programs in college football, and we’ve been able to take the cake the past couple of meetings and I know they wanna get over that hump. So it’s a passionate rivalry, I’ll say that. Ohio State has a huge fan base and a great following so I know this is something that a lot of people take pride in and it matters to a lot of people. So if I can get some bragging rights over a couple of my buddies, I guess that’s just the benefit of it all.”
Respect for “world-class athlete” in former teammate Hilliard
Though Bockhorst was only a teammate of his for his freshman and sophomore years at St. X, that was enough for the offensive lineman to get a good read on Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard.
Hilliard was a five-star linebacker for the Bombers who came out of the 2015 class ranked as the No. 35 overall prospect, No. 3 OLB in the nation and the No. 1 prospect out of Ohio in that recruiting cycle.
Trying to block him during practices for St. X and then getting to watch him fly around the field in the Greater Catholic League gave him an up close and personal look at the sixth-year Buckeye. That’s created an admiration of Hilliard from afar.
“What an incredible athlete,” Bockhorst said. “He was a five-star, super highly recruited, and it’s really been tough for Justin to go through his career. It seems like he takes one step forward and two steps back from the injury perspective. And he’s finally getting healthy, and you can see it on film. He is a special, world-class athlete. I know he had a great game against Northwestern, and like I said you just watch the tape and you know. I really appreciate Justin and look up to him. He’s someone I really respect.”
And now the second-team All-ACC selection, who is in his first season as a full-time starter, might get a crack at blocking him at some point throughout the playoff matchup.
“We were teammates for two years and I got to play alongside one another and now the opportunity to play against one another is something that’s special and it’s not an opportunity that you get very often,” Bockhorst said. “I’m really proud of Justin and just to see him get his opportunity and stick it out for six years is longer than most. I think it’s really paying off for him, and he’s having the type of season that he could have envisioned.”
It’s not as if Clemson was overwhelmingly unsuccessful getting the ball down the field a year ago, attacking a defensive backfield teeming with soon-to-be NFL players in Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller and eventually Shaun Wade. That would be an unfair characterization. Trevor Lawrence connected on 18-of-33 attempts for 259 yards and two touchdowns and zero interceptions. It’s true, though, that the Tigers didn’t get a ton of production out of their wide receivers.
The Buckeyes put a cap on that much-ballyhooed group led by Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, which recorded 159 yards across the 60-minute contest.
Clemson wideouts barely breaking a buck fifty likely won’t be enough production to take down an Ohio State team with a leaky secondary for the second straight year, though. They know that better than most.
“Who's going to have more success: Their corners or our receivers, in terms of winning the matchup at the line of scrimmage?” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
That’s been an open conversation within the Tigers’ locker room.
“I feel like the wide receivers here at Clemson, we've been challenged by coach Swinney and coach (Tyler Grisham) to really go out there and make a statement,” senior receiver Cornell Powell said. “Really, the game's going to really come down to us being able to make one-on-one plays. We have a ton of respect for their DBs this year as well as last year. We're just going to go out there and make sure that we do enough to ensure that we get the win.”
Rodgers, a fellow senior wideout, added: “We're definitely aware we didn't play to the standard last year versus Ohio State. We didn't make the plays that we felt like was needed for us to win the game the way we wanted to. We've been challenged by coach Swinney about that.”
With Higgins in the NFL and Ross out for the season due to injury, the responsibility for an uptick in production on the outside will largely fall on the shoulders of Rodgers (69 catches, 966 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Powell (45 catches, 743 yards, 5 touchdowns), who are the only Tiger wideouts with more than 19 receptions this season.
Ohio State linebackers can pose problems
Before the season, head coach Ryan Day turned some heads with his description of Ohio State’s linebackers. In October, he called the veteran group “probably the strength of the defense.”
That characterization is certainly defensible with six games of evidence. Pete Werner earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard have showcased their versatility at strongside linebacker and Tuf Borland took a step forward this fall. As expected, they’ve been steady and reliable this fall, and they’ll continue to be one of the keys of this defense on Friday.
“Obviously their linebackers, their bandit backers, they're very athletic,” tight end Braden Galloway said. “They're good in space. They're good in coverage. They also play the run very well. They have a lot of different guys that cover the tight ends specifically, depending on what personnel formations you're in. All of them are very capable in being successful in the run and in the pass game, so you definitely have to prepare well, see their tendencies, see what they're good at, see what they're weaker at and try to attack them that way.”
The way Clemson will attack the Buckeyes’ defense likely won’t be right up the middle. Ohio State’s been stout in that area all season with defensive tackles Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai muddying things up inside.
So, that could put the linebackers in the spot where they'll be counted on to make plays in space. Werner, in particular, will be important to minimizing Clemson's plays in space.
“Pete was a guy that going into the game, you don't realize just how good of an athlete he is watching him on tape,” Elliott said. “When you play him in person, you see that he's a guy that's got a big body but he can move. He can move well, move like a safety. He can cover. Then when you see now with him playing inside the box, he has natural instincts. He can find the ball. And then obviously with his movement skills, he moves quickly so he can get around blocks. Then he's also big enough to be able to set the edge, too, if he's ever in that situation. He's a guy that from last year that after the game, you had a lot of respect for him.”