Ever since Ohio State gave up 35 points and 490 yards against Indiana, including four plays of over 50 yards and six plays of at least 25 yards, there have been pervasive questions of whether the Buckeyes’ issues with allowing big plays on defense could ultimately cost them in the College Football Playoff.
Now that the Buckeyes are set to play Clemson on Friday, there’s good reason to be anxious about that possibility.
“They do it to everybody,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said Tuesday. “Their explosive tape is the longest tape that you've ever seen.”
While Ohio State’s defense has allowed 29 plays of 20-plus yards, 15 plays of 30-plus yards and six plays of 50-plus yards in just six games this season, Clemson’s offense has recorded 75 plays of 20-plus yards – the fifth-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision – including 32 plays of 30-plus yards and nine plays of 50-plus yards in 11 games.
Led by Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, Travis Etienne at running back and Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell at wide receiver, the Tigers are built to produce big plays when defenses have breakdowns. Ohio State learned that the hard way last year, when the Tigers hit four plays of over 30 yards against the Buckeyes: a 67-yard touchdown run by Lawrence, a 53-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Etienne and a 38-yard catch by Rodgers that set up a 34-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Etienne, ultimately leading to Clemson’s 29-23 victory.
That was against an Ohio State defense that led the entire FBS in yards allowed per game last season. This year’s defense hasn’t performed up to the same standard, while Clemson’s offense has been just about as dangerous as last year.
Ohio State’s defense has been better in its only two games since the Indiana game, allowing only one touchdown and one field goal against both Michigan State and Northwestern. The Buckeyes were expected to be better in those games, though – Northwestern ranks 100th in total offense this year, while Michigan State ranks 109th – making it tough to evaluate whether Ohio State’s defense has actually gotten better.
Buckeyes linebacker Pete Werner is confident that they have.
“We’ve had a lot to practice on. We’ve seen our issues on film. And we’ve worked well with that,” Werner said Tuesday. “We’ve just been working great as a team defense, and the chemistry that is being built over time is really showing. I just can’t wait to show the nation, show everybody that it has paid off, that we’ve bounced back from the issues that have come up on film.”
Fellow Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard says limiting big plays has been a big point of emphasis for the defense.
“I think every week, our defense is built around stopping big plays, and sometimes we’ve let that fall this year, and I think that’s obviously been the big focal point of this week is just limiting all those big plays,” Hilliard said. “With a guy like (Etienne) it can be tough, but we’re up for the challenge.”
Realistically, Ohio State probably isn’t going to be able to completely prevent Clemson from making big plays on Friday. As consistently dangerous as the Tigers are, having scored at least 34 points and gained more than 400 yards in all 11 of their games this season, the Buckeyes will be hard-pressed to completely shut them down. But the Buckeyes have to be able to limit the Tigers’ offense in order to give their own offense a chance to win the game.
“I don't think anybody stops them. I think you want to try to slow them down. You want to try to contain them. You want to try to eliminate those big plays,” Coombs said. “They have a formula. They've got talent across the board from the numbers to the numbers. And so if you went into a game and said, we're going to take this one thing away, they have plenty to beat you somewhere else. And so you have to prepare for all of it, and you have to play a great game for four quarters in order to have a chance at the end.”
“I just can’t wait to show the nation, show everybody that it has paid off, that we’ve bounced back from the issues that have come up on film.”– Pete Werner
Even if Ohio State plays its best defensive football of the year, it’s still likely Clemson will score a few touchdowns just because of how talented it is. What the Buckeyes can’t afford, though, are self-inflicted mistakes like coverage busts, incorrect reads and missed tackles that make it easier for the Tigers’ playmakers to make big plays.
“From last year, we’ve obviously learned that big plays, giving up big plays were some of the keys where we lost that game,” Werner said. “It was very difficult when you have a dual-threat quarterback like Trevor. He’s a very good scrambler, he can throw the ball very well, that just makes it very tough but a great challenge on this defense. We just gotta, again, go out and show it. I credit the kid, he can do a lot of things, but we just gotta stay focused and disciplined as a defense.”