Photo courtesy of Christian Petersen – Getty Images
Last year’s Fiesta Bowl against Clemson was one of the strangest games that I’ve seen Ohio State play, and it’s left a sour taste for 370 days. From a noticeable inability to finish red-zone drives to some of the worst officiating I’ve ever seen, the Buckeyes are correct to believe that things probably should’ve gone the other way.
Today, coach Day and the troops have a chance to rewrite their story.
Chris Olave said it best here, this is a second chance that most wouldn’t be afforded. Ohio State has had to fight throughout every aspect of their season, and the fact that we’re seeing a Buckeye playoff appearance is somewhat a miracle in and of itself. Even more interesting is the fact that this is one of the most highly anticipated rematches that I can remember. Beyond just last year’s game, the history of this budding rivalry could (and probably will) be able to fill a separate post later on. Ohio State has never beaten the Clemson Tigers through their 4 attempts, but the 2019 game has gone down as somewhat of an instant classic and I don’t see this iteration being any less significant.
It’s got a severe disdain from each side to the other. It’s got trash talk and subliminal messages firing back and forth. Most importantly, it’s got two of the best programs in college football duking it out for a shot at the National Championship.
This is everything that you can ask for from a rivalry, and then some. I mean at the surface level you have the two best quarterbacks in the country, widely considered heading into the year as 1a and 1b to each other in Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence. Ryan Day and Dabo Swinney are also two of the top coaches in college football, making the X’s and O’s just as important as the Jimmys and Joes.
With that out of the way, let’s get into what you can expect in this game.
As I mentioned earlier, attention will instantly shoot towards the gunslingers at the helm. Lawrence was absent with COVID-19 in the Tigers’ only loss this season, and his impact on that offense has been immeasurable. He can do it all, and his ability to take off and run was one of the keys to Clemson’s gameplan in last year’s game. Ohio State will almost certainly be looking to limit that aspect of the rushing attack with a spy or two.
Fields has had a slightly different season in that (despite relative greatness) he hasn’t lived up to the first overall pick aspirations that were pushed onto him coming in. There has been a lack of consistency in the phenomenal play we saw last season, leading to some questions about just how much he can do for the Buckeyes. I expect him to have one of the best games of his career with Olave returning from the COVID list, and it may not be the 500 yard 7 touchdown game that he’d want, but Fields will be one of three keys that I have for Ohio State to come away with a win tonight.
The second of which is the run game. Clemson is statistically not an elite run stopping team, and I think the emergence of Trey Sermon over the past 2 games will prove essential for the Buckeyes success. The same way that a magical 3 game run from Ezekiel Elliott led to an OSU National Title in the first College Football Playoff, I think Sermon is talented enough to provide a similar effect.
To round out Ohio State’s offense, the O-line appears to be heading in without guard Harry Miller, who has started every game this season. Miller has struggled thus far, so I’m excited to see what Dawand Jones can provide in the trenches. The rest of the line must give that physicality that the Buckeyes have become known for, and I think Ohio State could put up some real numbers in this game.
On the other side of things, the front seven that has been thriving by committee this season will be missing sophomore Zach Harrison on the edge. While this is a blow, I think Larry Johnson and the defensive staff will feel pretty comfortable with next man up whether it be Tyler Friday, Tyreke Smith, or Javontae Jean-Baptiste. Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning are in for the game of their lives, and I wouldn’t rather have any other unit in the country.
My third, and final key to this game for Ohio State is the secondary. It’s easy to see that the Buckeyes’ secondary is not what it was last season. Two-first round DB’s in Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette, as well as Jordan Fuller who was drafted later on have been missed sorely thus far this year. Shaun Wade has been fantastic for almost the entirety of the season, solidifying his decision to opt back into the season in October. Everywhere else has been shaky at best, and plain unacceptable at worst. Marcus Hooker was a guy that I had high hopes for, but he has struggled mightily this season, and I would love to see what Josh Proctor has to offer at that single high safety spot. Opposite Shaun Wade, Sevyn Banks and Marcus Williamson must stand their ground. It won’t be an island, and I understand that, but if Ohio State can eliminate the chunk plays that plagued them agains Indiana then I feel very confident in the Buckeyes.
This is one that I’ve been hoping for all season, and I can only imagine how the players and coaches feel about the ending last year. I think Day comes out aggressive, and that 16-0 lead that quickly evaporated in the 2019 game could be a blueprint into that aggression. While I do believe in Ohio State heading into this one, this will likely go down as one of the best games of the season and I cannot wait until 8 PM EST.
Ohio State 37, Clemson 33