On the third day of the New Year, the Clemson football team will clash with The Ohio State Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl. Both squads enter with a boulder-sized chip on their respective shoulders. For Clemson, they want to erase the memory of the 2012 rendition of this bowl, in which they were embarrassed by West Virginia 70-33. The game sparked the running joke amongst college football fans that “West Virginia just scored again,” a pot-shot at the Tigers’ porous defense.
Ohio State, on the other hand, is perpetually striving to legitimize their place among college football’s elite ever since their back-to-back drubbings in the National Championship game in 2006 and 2007. Moreover, the entire worth of the Big Ten seems to rest on how the Buckeyes perform against Southern schools. A win over Clemson won’t expunge all doubt, but it would help their case.
Vegas made Ohio State a 2.5-point favorite, but the past week has been rough on the Buckeyes. A stomach illness has forced a number of players to miss practices, including quarterback Braxton Miller. Moreover, OSU’s best pass rusher in Noah Spence received a three-game suspension from the Big Ten for using “an unapproved dietary supplement.” Lastly, defensive starters Bradley Roby and Curtis Grant are battling injuries and may not be available. These absences will likely force inexperienced defenders like Armani Reeves, Vonn Bell, and Jamal Marcus to play a significant number of snaps against one of the most proficient offenses in the nation.
A Tale of Two Offenses
Clemson passes it all over defenses, Ohio State runs it right through defenses. Both teams rank in the nation’s top ten in terms of scoring offense with OSU coming in at number three (46.3 ppg) and CU ranking eighth (40.2). Clemson’s success stems from Tajh Boyd’s arm and his freakish wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Their opponent’s bread-and-butter is the read-option game with quarterback Braxton Miller and their raging bull of a tailback, Carlos Hyde, running behind their massive offensive line.
Despite having different fortes, both utilize a spread offense to out-leverage defenses. In fact, the two offenses will appear similar to the naked eye. It is no surprise that Urban Meyer attempted to lure Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris to Columbus two years ago.
Most analysts expect this game to be a shootout, as they should; but in all likelihood, the team with the better defense will win. Both defenses need to constrain what their opponent does best.
Clemson must find a way to slow down OSU’s vaunted rushing attack. Brent Venables’ defense surrenders 3.7 yards per carry, good for 26th in the nation. The Tigers’ run defense won’t be confused with Michigan State (as we saw in the Rose Bowl), but they have enough beef and athleticism to cause problems up front. For instance, they held the nation’s leading rusher, Andre Williams, to only 70 yards. It’s important to remember that OSU averages 318 yards on the ground; the Buckeyes will put up gaudy numbers, but if the Tigers can hold them under 300 yards rushing, that may be enough to win. MSU surrendered 273 yards rushing to OSU in the Big Ten Championship game, for instance.
Braxton Miller is the best athlete playing the quarterback position in college football; however, I’m not sold on his ability to make throws in obvious passing situations. Miller ranks 1st in the Big Ten in passer rating, which is due in large part to the Buckeyes’ play-action game. When the run/pass threat is gone, his numbers drop precipitously. For example, on third downs, he completes only 50% of his throws and holds a passer rating of 119.6 (his overall rating is 157.94). That is a drastic drop in productivity. For comparison, Tajh Boyd, Teddy Bridgewater, and Johnny Manziel have higher passer ratings on third down than their overall average. Great passers succeed in difficult situations and Miller simply isn’t there yet. If Clemson forces Ohio State into enough 3rd and 4+ situations, they will win the Orange Bowl.
On the other side, the Buckeyes must find a way to hinder the Tigers’ air attack. Like Miller, CU signal-caller Tajh Boyd is a dual-threat, but passing is his strength. If Boyd has time to survey the defense, he will find receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, who will then make you pay in the open field. Pressuring Boyd is the key to slowing Chad Morris’s offense. In CU’s two losses, they gave up an average of 4.5 sacks. In their ten wins, the Tigers surrendered 2.3 sacks per game.
Noah Spence’s absence will certainly hurt the Buckeyes. The sophomore defensive end leads the team with 8 sacks. With that said, Ohio State still has enough talent in the front seven to cause the Clemson offensive line problems. They Buckeyes have a total of 40 sacks on the year, which is tied for the fourth most in the country. Michael Bennett (7 sacks) is one of the premier interior-linemen in America and freshman Joey Bosa (6.5 sacks) is a super-star in the making. The best of the bunch, however, is ultra-athletic linebacker Ryan Shazier (7 sacks, 23.5 TFL). I expect OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to let Shazier loose.
Of course, if Brandon Thomas and company provide Boyd time, it could be a long night for OSU’s weak secondary that will likely be without the best of group in cornerback Bradley Roby. Clemson’s 11th best passing attack will be up against the 105th ranked pass defense in terms of yards per game. The Big Ten is known for its power running games, which makes the Buckeyes pass defense numbers especially disconcerting.
I learned long ago not to bet against Urban Meyer. He’s 7-1 in bowl games and will surely have his team ready to go. Boyd and company will produce some big plays on OSU’s over-matched secondary, but the Buckeyes’ front will do enough to get some timely stops.
Carlos Hyde is a true warrior, who will give CU fits all game long. Miller will hit a couple big plays over the top off play-action. In the end, I see the Buckeyes prevailing 38-34 in what should be one of this year’s most exiting games.
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