The opportunity that Ohio State and its fans have been awaiting for the last three years has finally arrived.
For the first time since 2016, Ohio State is in the College Football Playoff, and its semifinal game comes against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl – the same opponent and the same venue as the Buckeyes’ last playoff game, when they suffered a 31-0 loss to the Tigers.
Ohio State has an opportunity to avenge that defeat – its losses in three of its all-time games against Clemson, for that matter – in the desert on Saturday night, but more importantly, the Buckeyes have a chance to punch their ticket to this year’s national championship game.
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For most of Ohio State’s players and coaches, including superstar junior defensive end Chase Young, Saturday’s game will be their first opportunity to participate in the College Football Playoff – an opportunity they’ve all been dreaming of since they became Buckeyes.
“God blessed us and gave us this opportunity to be here, and we’re going to try our best to take full advantage of this moment, ‘cause these moments right here, you don’t really touch often,” Young said this week. “And not being here the first two years, I definitely realized that.”
Ryan Day’s first season at Ohio State has already been one for the history books. The Buckeyes have won all 13 of their games this season, marking just the second time in school history an Ohio State team has ever reached 13-0, surpassing even what Urban Meyer accomplished in his first season leading the program. They’ve already won their eighth straight game against Michigan and their third straight Big Ten championship, so no matter what happens from this point forward, this season can be considered a success.
At Ohio State, though, the expectation is to win national championships – an expectation that Day has understood from the moment he took the job. And beyond that, he and the Buckeyes simply aren’t ready for this special season to be over.
“I’m not ready for this team to be done, more than anything,” Day said. “I love this team, I love these kids, I love this coaching staff. What they’ve done together as a group, but just personally what they’ve done for me in my first time as a head coach, they’ll always have a place in my heart. And we’re not ready for this thing to be over, so we’re fighting for that, too. We want to continue to play after this and keep this team together.”
Since Ohio State played Clemson in 2016, the Tigers have only lost two games – and both of those losses came in 2017.
Dating back to the start of the 2018 season, Clemson has won its last 28 straight games, including all 13 of its games this year and all 15 of its games in 2018, in which it became the first 15-0 team in Football Bowl Subdivision history and won the national championship.
That’s all Day needs to know to understand how big of a challenge his team will be up against on Saturday.
“It is hard to win 28 games against air,” Day said. “I don’t know how you do that.”
Clemson hasn’t faced any top-ranked teams this season, but its consistency in beating every team it’s played – and winning almost all those games in blowout fashion – is enough to demonstrate just how good the Tigers are.
Except for a 21-20 win over North Carolina in which the Tar Heels came a two-point conversion away from a potential upset, the Tigers have won every other game they’ve played this year by at least 14 points, including 11 wins by at least 31 points. Statistically, Clemson ranks among the nation’s best in just about every major category; the Tigers lead the FBS in both points allowed per game (10.6) and yards allowed per game (244.7) and rank third in yards gained per game (547.7) and fourth in points scored per game (46.5).
Offensively, the Tigers are led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Trevor Lawrence; running back Travis Etienne, who leads the nation with 8.24 yards per carry this season; and a pair of tall, explosive downfield playmakers at wide receiver in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, as well as another big-play threat in slot receiver Amari Rodgers.
The challenge Ohio State will face against Clemson’s passing offense stands out, because the Buckeyes haven’t faced a quarterback of Lawrence’s caliber this year, and Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said there’s “no question” Clemson has the best passing game the Buckeyes have faced this year. But they also can’t sleep on Etienne and the running game.
“You better stop the run because if you let them run the football and then have those three receivers with that quarterback, you’re asking for trouble,” Mattison said.
Defensively, Clemson has been stifling. The Tigers held all 12 of their regular-season opponents under 300 yards before allowing Virginia to go for 387, and outside of the North Carolina game, they haven’t allowed any other opponent to score more than 14 points this season. Their defensive line isn’t quite as loaded with future NFL first-round draft picks as it was the last few years, but their excellent linebackers and defensive backs – particularly versatile hybrid linebacker Isaiah Simmons – have helped make up for it.
Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said “they play as good of defense as anybody in the country,” and both he and Ryan Day have tremendous respect for longtime Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who worked with Wilson from 2002-10 at Oklahoma.
“Coach Venables obviously has been one of the best play callers and big-game defensive coordinators in the last decade. So, yeah, it is going to be a challenge,” Day said. “But, again, if you want to win the national title, you have to go against the best. I know he’s going to have those guys ready.”
Clemson has proven its ability to win and win consistently, not only this season but throughout the latter part of the decade, including in big games. The Tigers have played in seven College Football Playoff games since 2015 and won five of them, and they’ll look to build upon that Saturday. In order to do so, though, they’ll have to beat a team that has also been dominant and complete this year.
Ohio State Breakdown
While Clemson is the most intimidating opponent Ohio State has faced all season because of how it’s won big week in and week out and how the Tigers seemingly don’t have any substantial weaknesses, the same can be said for the Buckeyes.
“Tremendous amount of respect for Ohio State,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “Kind of mirror images of each other in so many ways. You can tell that both teams like each other, play for each other, believe in themselves and their teammates. I think that really resonates on film.”
Like Clemson, Ohio State ranks among the best teams in the country in just about every major statistical category and has dominated just about every opponent it’s faced. The Buckeyes lead the FBS in points scored per game (48.7), rank second in yards allowed per game (247.6), are tied for second in points allowed per game (12.5) and have the fifth-most yards gained per game (531.0). They’ve won every game they’ve played by double digits, including 11 wins by at least 24 points.
Ohio State has cleared every hurdle and overcome every step up in competition along the way, but Saturday’s game will be the biggest new test yet. Day has never coached in a College Football Playoff game in any capacity or any bowl game as a head coach, and in order to lead the Buckeyes to their first playoff game win since they won the national championship five season ago, he’ll have to take down the reigning national champs.
The Buckeyes know that won’t be easy, but Day is confident in how hard they have worked to get to this point and the maturity his team has exhibited all season.
“I think any time you play in any type of game, you have to prepare physically, you have to get your body ready. You have to prepare mentally, know what you’re doing, but then emotionally and spiritually,” Day said. “But our guys have played in big games. They’ve played in big environments, so I don’t think that’ll be an advantage to either side.”
With the exception of redshirting defensive end Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State is expected to have all of its key players available for Saturday’s game. Only eight players are listed as unavailable for the Fiesta Bowl, and all of them are backups who have already missed multiple games this year due to injuries. That’s a rare position for a football team to be in at this point of the season, and a crucial benefit for the Buckeyes, as Clemson has also managed to avoid major injuries this year.
“Coming off those three games (against Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin) at the end of the year, it was great to have a little bit of a break to catch our breath,” Day said. “It is great to have everybody healthy. That means a lot late in the season.”
That said, there are still a couple lingering injury questions surrounding the Buckeyes. Justin Fields said Tuesday that his knee is only 80-85 percent healthy after he sprained his MCL in November, which means he will have to continue wearing a brace on Saturday and also leads to uncertainty regarding he will be able to extend plays with his feet as effectively as he could for most of the season. Slot cornerback Shaun Wade appeared to still be dealing with a left thigh injury during practice this week after missing the Michigan game and leaving the Big Ten Championship Game early, so whether he will be 100 percent is also in question.
Justin Fields will still be playing with a knee brace on Saturday, and whether that affects his mobility could be a key factor in the game.
Ohio State will need Fields to be at his best for its offense to put up points the way it has all season, and the Buckeyes will also need their secondary – Wade included – to be at its best to slow down Clemson’s passing attack.
Ultimately, though, the Buckeyes have to focus on what they can control, and that means every player on the field in all phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams – giving maximum effort to try to out-execute their opponent and find a way to take over the game, just as they have in every game so far this year.
“They’re a top-notch program, top-notch team,” said Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. “Definitely the best team we’ve played thus far. So we’re just going to have to match that intensity, or make our intensity be even higher than theirs.”
Considering how well Ohio State has played this season, it would be absolutely stunning if Saturday’s game is anything reminiscent of what happened in 2016. The Buckeyes’ offense is much better than it was three years ago, particularly in the passing game, while their running game has been dominant. Ohio State shouldn’t be at any risk of being shut out, and if the Buckeyes’ offensive line can impose its will on Clemson’s defensive front and they can establish the run early, that could open the door for Fields and Ohio State’s receivers to make big plays through the air.
Given how well Clemson has played this season, though, a blowout in the other direction would also be surprising. The Tigers have lost one game by more than five points (a 24-6 loss in the 2017 playoff semifinals against Alabama) in the last five years, their defense hasn’t allowed anyone to string together scoring drives consistently and they’ve had at least 38 points and 500 yards of offense in each of their last eight games.
|2016||Fiesta (CFP)||Clemson 31, Ohio State 0|
|2013||Orange||Clemson 40, Ohio State 35|
|1978||Gator||Clemson 17, Ohio State 15|
All signs point to Saturday’s game being a four-quarter, down-to-the-wire, back-and-forth battle in which one game-changing play or costly mistake could make the difference, although former Ohio State coach and current Fox Sports analyst Urban Meyer believes the opening quarter of the game will be telling.
“The first seven minutes of the game is going to be imperative,” Meyer said. “The key is going to be, how do people respond in the first seven minutes or the first few possessions, because other than practice, neither team has faced anything close to what they’re getting ready to go up against.”
If either team can get out to a fast start, there’s a chance the game that could swing in one direction like the 2016 game did in Clemson’s favor. As evenly matched as this game appears to be on paper, though, it appears far more likely that this game will be decided by one score either way, with the winning team ultimately putting together the big drive and/or coming up with the big stop it needs to break through to victory and clinch a national championship game berth.
The experience that Swinney and the vast majority of Clemson’s roster has participating in and winning playoff games could play to the Tigers’ advantage if that situation unfolds. But as well as Day and the Buckeyes have performed all season, and the advantages – although they may be slight – that Ohio State looks as though it could have on the offensive and defensive lines, this Ohio State team seems capable of being the one that finally earns the first win in school history over Clemson.
ELEVEN WARRIORS STAFF PREDICTION: Ohio State 35, Clemson 31