Perhaps one stat signifies hope for a Buckeye win in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup more than any other.
That’s the 502 passing yards Georgia surrendered to LSU in the SEC Championship Game. Of course, that total came in a 20-point loss to the Bulldogs, but LSU is not Ohio State. Under head coach Ryan Day, the Buckeyes have only dropped one of the six games in which they’ve passed for 400 yards, let alone 500. And that one defeat was only a one-score loss.
A passing performance of that magnitude would figure to portend at least a highly competitive affair in the Peach Bowl, if not an outright Ohio State victory. But while the Buckeyes would undoubtedly like to replicate those numbers on Saturday, they’re not putting a lot of stock into what they saw in the Georgia-LSU game. Not outwardly, anyway.
Ohio State can’t simply expect to roll the ball out and put up video game numbers against a talented Georgia secondary, even if they saw a lesser opponent do so in the Bulldogs’ most recent appearance.
“We got to play Buckeye football. LSU did what LSU did. So I'm pretty sure they're not going to let us drop back and do what we want to do,” C.J. Stroud said during a press conference at the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel in Atlanta on Tuesday. “I'm pretty sure they've been watching film on us and make sure that's something they stop. I know that that’s probably what the outside world thinks, is that LSU got to throw the ball against them really well, and we'll just go out there and do it.
"I'm pretty sure they'll have a plan for that, and we'll have to be on our game just as much as they are. So that was good for LSU, but we gotta go play Buckeye football and make sure what happens on Saturday for us.”
Marvin Harrison Jr. echoed Stroud’s sentiments when asked if Ohio State thinks it can take anything from LSU’s success against Georgia through the air.
“Obviously LSU did what they did and they came in to battle and play their game. We just have to go out there and play our game,” Harrison said Tuesday. “We have confidence in ourselves and how we're going to make things work and go out there and compete. We're not going to take too much from other teams. Obviously have to watch the film to see what other teams did, but just worry about ourselves and see what we can do.”
Comparisons to the LSU game aren’t coming out of thin air. During Tuesday's interviews, Georgia defensive back Chris Smith brought it up when asked about Ohio State's wide receiver corps.
“I would probably compare them to actually the last game we played, LSU had a lot of great receivers as well as Ohio State, and they all bring different things to the game as wide receivers,” Smith said. “But they're all special talents at the end of the day and something that we have to be able to account for and focus on.”
Simply putting up that level of productivity against a Georgia defense that hadn’t even given up 300 yards in the air before the conference championship game will be challenging enough. But the Buckeyes won’t be satisfied unless they win the game, no matter what the final stats show.
“You look at those stats, but the result of the game was they won by 20. So that wasn't necessarily the formula to win the game."– Kevin Wilson
Kevin Wilson made that point Tuesday when discussing LSU’s showing against the Bulldogs, as the Ohio State offensive coordinator led his response with the most important fact about the SEC title game: Georgia still won.
Wilson referenced the history of College Football Playoff games and said Ohio State must expect to put up some gaudy offensive numbers to have a chance in such a contest. Eight of the 16 total CFP semifinal matchups saw the winner score at least 35 points, and only one winner of the national championship game in the CFP era put up less than 33.
“You look at those stats, but the result of the game was they won by 20. So that wasn't necessarily the formula to win the game and make plays in both phases, third-down conversions, short-yard conversion,” Wilson said. “You look at the history of championship football games, and there's not a lot of 9-7, 13-10 ballgames. And we got two great defenses going at each other. There are playmakers on the offense. And when you look at the big-time plays, you have to score points. We have to find ways to not only have yards passing and running. We gotta find a way to get the ball to the end zone if we want a chance to win this game.”
Not to mention, Georgia has spent the better part of the last month trying to fill those gaps in the secondary.
“We've just been focusing on our technique and fundamentals. It's been when a month that we've had to be able to practice and get prepared for this game, and just locking in on a game plan,” Smith said. “That game is in the past. We know we didn't perform our best, and we can perform better and that's what we want to do for this game on Saturday.”
Previous opponents aside, Emeka Egbuka feels strongly about Ohio State’s chances to make big plays in the passing game, whether the Georgia secondary looks like the one that showed up in the SEC Championship Game or the unit that stifled most teams it played all season before then.
“I'm very confident in the talent we do have on offense, and I feel like when it comes to us playing any team in the nation, I feel confident with our guys and our ability to sling the rock,” Egbuka said Tuesday. “So, as C.J. said, we're going to do all it takes to win, whether that's running or passing, but we're definitely aware of the talent that we have, and we're going to look to exploit it and make big plays whenever we can.”