Early Fiesta Bowl preview: Can OSU contain Clemson’s receivers?
Josh Liskiewitz breaks down everything you need to know as the Buckeyes take on the Tigers in the College Football Playoff.
Early Fiesta Bowl preview: Can OSU contain Clemson’s receivers?
This year’s Fiesta Bowl features two preseason favorites that both struggled at times, but ultimately came out the victors in all but one regular season game. Ohio State failed to win the Big Ten because of divisional tiebreakers, but earned their spot on the strength of wins over Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Clemson lost to Pitt, but defeated Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game on Saturday night and also set their resume with crucial victories over Florida State and Louisville.
Here is what to expect when these two elite squads face off on New Year’s Eve:
When Ohio State has the ball
The Buckeyes’ offense is predicated on QB J.T. Barrett having success on the ground. As a scrambler, he earned 203 yards at 6.8 yards per carry and forced eight missed tackles. But the bulk of his ground yards were on designed read-option runs, where he gained 737 yards, scored nine touchdowns and forced another 15 missed tackles.
In terms of his passing, pressure was his biggest indicator of success or failure. With a clean pocket, he completed 66.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 21 touchdowns to just three interceptions. When he was pressured (on about 32.3 percent of his drop-backs), his completion percentage dropped to 46.8 percent, his yards per attempt went from 7.7 to 4.9, he threw just three touchdowns to one interception while taking 24 sacks, and his QB rating plummeted from 112.7 to 67.9.
Noah Brown emerged as a significant perimeter threat for Ohio State in the early season romp over the Sooners, as Brown caught five targets for 72 yards and four touchdowns, but his final stats for the season saw him accumulate just 30 catches for 385 yards and seven scores. Curtis Samuel is the clear top threat both on the ground and through the air, as he caught 64 balls for 819 yards (420 earned after the catch) and seven scores, forcing nine missed tackles, while adding another 706 yards on the ground at 7.7 yards per tote (he scored eight times on the ground and forced another 17 missed tackles). Mike Weber was the top ground-gainer, as he posted 1084 yards at 6.2 yards per rush, scoring nine times and forcing 41 missed tackles. It’s worth noting that in Ohio State’s only loss to Penn State, the Nittany Lions shut down the Buckeye run game, with the exception of a 74-yard touchdown run by Samuel. Eliminating that run, on designed carries Ohio State managed just 94 yards on 30 carries and forced just two missed tackles.
Ohio State’s offensive line has been outstanding at times this season, while at other times struggled significantly. C Pat Elflein, RG Isaiah Prince and LT Jamarco Jones all have run blocking grades of at least 75.0, and the trio have combined to give up just three sacks and five hits this year. LG Michael Jordan has given up seven sacks and 25 total pressures, and has a run blocking grade of just 56.8. RT Isaiah Prince has been slightly better in terms of run blocking, but has given up 45 total pressures, ranking him dead last in the country in pass blocking efficiency out of 174 tackles who have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps.
Clemson’s success or failure at stopping the Buckeyes’ run game will be largely predicated on the ability of Dexter Lawrence, the 12th-highest graded interior defender in the country (86.7 overall grade), to control the line of scrimmage. He ranks 20th in the country in run stop percentage, and is at the top of the mountain in terms of pass rush productivity (seven sacks, 43 total pressures on 271 pass rush snaps). Lawrence will be joined on the interior by Carlos Watkins, who leads Clemson with nine sacks and has 31 total pressures. If the duo can cause havoc rushing via the interior and the ends, and properly maintain lanes against the scrambling Barrett, the Buckeye passing attack could struggle as it did against Penn State in Michigan. In those two games, Barrett was pressured on 52 of 96 drop-backs (63 total pressures) and threw for just 368 total yards (126 against the Wolverines).
Considering the Buckeyes lack a true perimeter downfield threat, it will be interesting to see if the Tigers try to shadow Samuel in the slot with star CB Cordrea Tankersley, something he has very little experience doing (649 of Tankersley’s 815 snaps were at either CB position, while only four snaps were from the slot). QBs throwing at Tankersley have a passer rating of just 42.2, as he has allowed just 25 catches on 56 targets while notching three interceptions and seven pass break-ups.
Stopping Ohio State’s ground attack will be largely predicated on tackling, something Clemson has at times struggled with. The Tigers have missed tackles on 13.63 percent of all defensive snaps, which ranks just 64th nationally.
When Clemson has the ball
The Tigers are of course led by Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson, one of the most versatile signal-callers in the country. His 90.8 overall grade ranks him third nationally, and is due to a balance of running and passing ability. While his accuracy on deep throws is far from consistent (39.7 completion percentage on throws of at least 20 yards through the air), his intermediate passing is. On throws between 10 and 19 yards from the line of scrimmage he has completed 59.1 percent of his throws, a number that goes up to 71.1 percent when he throws between the numbers. 15 of his 37 passing touchdowns have come on intermediate throws, although eight of his 14 interceptions have as well. On the ground he has contributed a total of 561 yards and six scores between designed runs and scrambles, and has forced a total of 25 missed tackles.
Wayne Gallman is the primary cog in the ground game, as he has posted 1,001 rushing yards at 5.1 yards per rush, scored 15 touchdowns and forced 45 missed tackles (third-most in the ACC). His elusiveness will be put to the test against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes have missed-tackle rate of just 9.1 percent, the fifth-lowest mark in the country. The final element to Gallman’s game is his outstanding pass blocking, as he has given up just six total pressures this season, with no sacks or hits charged to him.
The Clemson aerial attack is headed by Mike Williams, who has hauled in 85 catches this season for 1170 yards and 10 touchdowns. Artavis Scott has also had a productive season, as he has caught 69 balls for 579 yards, 481 of which have come after the catch.
While the starting offensive line has collectively yielded just six sacks and 16 hits, the unit’s run blocking has not been overly impressive. LT Mitch Hyatt and C Jay Guillermo have run blocking grades of 79.0 and 74.0 respectively, but the other three starters are all below 60.0.
Defensively the Buckeyes are strong on all fronts, but it starts with the pass rush. DEs Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa all have at least 38 pressures this season, and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano isn’t shy about putting them all on the field at the same time. The entire front is also stout against the run, a category in which Ohio State cumulatively grades out fourth-best in the nation. This is due in large part to the LB duo of Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker, both of whom grade among the top linebackers in the country. McMillan had a career game against Michigan, as he posted 14 solo tackles, 10 of them for stops.
The secondary is loaded with playmakers. Starters Gareon Conley, Marcus Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Chris Worley have combined to give up catches on just 44.5 percent of throws into their primary coverage with 14 interceptions and 17 pass break-ups.
Matchup to watch
Clemson receivers against Ohio State defensive backs
As previously mentioned, the CB play has been outstanding for Ohio State. Conley has a QB rating against of just 19.8, while Lattimore’s is 29.0, the second and fourth-best marks in the country respectively. This being said, the Buckeyes have yet to face a team willing to repeatedly challenge them downfield and on the perimeter. Penn State had isolated success against the duo, as Conley gave up a 20-yard touchdown on an end zone fade pattern and Lattimore yielded a 35-yard reception, but neither was tested beyond those plays.
Look for Clemson to take multiple deep shots to Williams when Watson finds him isolated in man coverage, as he is one of the most dangerous deep ball threats in the country, regardless of who is covering him. Scott’s usage from the slot could also be a critical component for Clemson’s offense, as the Buckeyes have in the past shown a hesitancy to matchup their top cover players inside. Against Northwestern, Conley and Lattimore were responsible for just one of Biletnikoff finalist Austin Carr’s eight receptions (which went for a total of 158 yards). Scott has aligned from the slot almost a third of his snaps this season, and 29 of his 69 snags have come from inside. If Clemson has success early inside against Ohio State’s nickel and dime players, the Tigers may look to exploit the mismatch.
Prediction: Clemson 27, Ohio State 21
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.