While growing up in Ohio in the 1990’s, professional wrestling was huge. The WCW and WWF eventually grew into a weekly battle between heavyweights in the profession, each trying to out-match and out-big name the other. Names like Sting, The nOw, and The Heartbreak Kid were in every conversation in the halls of high schools all across the great state of Ohio.
On December 31st, 2016, the world will get to see a revival of sorts. One of the best, if not THE best, set of defensive backs in the long-storied history of Ohio State Football will face off against the most NFL-ready wide receiver in all of college football, along with a fantastic supporting cast.
The 46th edition of the Fiesta Bowl will feature the Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes. As we are doing all week here at The Buckeye Battle Cry, we are looking at a couple of the key match-ups that will decide the outcome of the game. Today, we look at the Ohio State Defensive Backs vs the Clemson Passing Offense.
Clemson comes into the Fiesta Bowl ranking in the Top-20 nationally in Total Offense, Scoring Offense, and Passing Offense. The Tigers, lead by Heisman Trophy Runner-up Deshawn Watson, average 506 yards per game on offense. Besides the dynamic, and possibly best overall quarterback in college football this year, the Tigers pack a mighty punch in their passing game. 6’ 4” 220 lb redshirt junior wide out Mike Williams is easily the star of the program. Williams is joined by a plethora of quality receiving options in Artavis Scott (5’ 11” 190lb junior), Hunter Renfrow (5’ 10” 175 lb sophomore), Ray Ray McCloud (5’ 10” 180 lb sophomore), and one of the best tight ends in college, Jorden Leggett (6’ 5” 260lb senior).
The receiving corps at Clemson consists of 6 players with over 29 catches and over 300 yards this season. The 3 starting wide outs and the tight end all have over 500 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns a piece. The star of the group, Williams, has 84 receptions this season, for 1171 yards (13.9 yards per reception) and 10 touchdowns. When watching Williams, you can see he has the classic wide receiver manta of “If the ball is up for grabs, I am going to get it and come down with it.” He is an aggressive and talented wide reliever.
But it is not all Williams. Scott, for instance, is just six receptions shy of setting a new Clemson school record for career catches. Renfrow did all his damage in 9 games, missing time with a broken hand suffered in Clemson’s underwhelming win over Troy. The top five receivers all average over 8 yards per reception.
The passing game is clearly the strength of the Clemson offense. Watson has, for the year, completed 2 out of every 3 pass attempts (329 of 487 – 67.7%) for 3914 yards and 37 touchdowns. But for all the good that has come from this attack, the Achilles heel also is born. Watson has thrown 15 interceptions this season.
This plays directly into the strength of the Silver Bullet Defense. As I have stated many times on our “Sons of Schmidt” podcast, this is one of, if not the best, defensive secondary’s in Ohio State History. This year’s incarnation of the Silver Bullets has already set the school record for the most interceptions returned for touchdowns (seven). Ohio State has, in 2016, had 11 players record a sack, 12 players with at least one pass broken up, and 8 players with at least one interception.
The defense is lead, stat wise, by All American Malik Hooker, who has 6 interceptions and 4 passes broken up, to go with his 3 touchdowns. Marshon Lattimore has 4 interceptions of his own, along with 9 passes defended, and neither of these two were as “lock down” as the HIGHLY underrated Gareon Conley, who had only a measly 3 interceptions along with 8 passes broken up. Conley also played most of the year on an island, in the Buckeyes man coverage scheme, and matched up with the opposing team’s number one receiver.
I would expect to see a lot of Conley on Williams this game. If anyone is going to shut him down, Conley is the best option Ohio State has. The rest of the secondary should be able to continue their stellar play and lock down the remainder of the receiving corps.
The big question will be Jordan Leggitt. I expect to see more of Damon Webb playing better as he has come on strong at the end of the Big Ten season. Webb did well in the Oklahoma and Michigan games, when the Buckeyes faced off against a match-up problem inducing tight end. Also, you can expect to see Jerome Baker helping out on Leggit in coverage also.
The outlook is simple. Line up, strength versus strength, and may the best man win. Ohio State will give up big plays in the passing game. This is the most talented offense they have faced this year. There is a reason Clemson won the ACC and is in the playoffs. But if the Buckeyes want to win this game, this will be the deciding factor. The Buckeyes will have to limit the big plays given up, and they will have to take advantage of the mistakes Watson makes. The Clemson offensive line has its strength in pass blocking, meaning the ability to apply pressure on the quarterback and force those mistakes will be critical also.
My prediction? I see Watson having a good game. He will get the 86 yards needed to clear 4000 yards for the season. He will have a touchdown or two. He also will have multiple interceptions thrown. This is the best backfield Clemson has faced, easily better than the 2nd best in Florida State.
As for the outcome of this match-up, the DBs will win this one. Defense wins championships and we will get to witness this in Glendale. Expect the Buckeyes coaching staff to rate multiple members of the coverage team as “Champions” this week. And expect the Buckeyes to win by two scores.