PHOENIX — Was it a clue about which part of the team Ohio State will have to rely on most if it is going to beat Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl tonight?
At the bowl’s media day, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he would not have expected Ohio State to be two wins away from the College Football Playoff national championship before the season began.
“I saw our schedule and the road games. You start by saying go to Norman, Oklahoma, and he (Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops) has lost like seven times in his whole career there, and then you go to Wisconsin. And this is before I knew Wisconsin was going to be as good as they are. And then you have to go to Penn State. That’s one of the top two hardest places in the country to play. You go to Michigan State. I thought we had a tough road,” Meyer said.
Then he mentioned eight first-year starters who have gone from unknown quantities to stars or solid contributors this season. All of them were defensive players – safety Malik Hooker, cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward, linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker, and young defensive linemen like Sam Hubbard, Dre’mont Jones and Michael Hill.
All of them face a big challenge against Clemson and its Heisman trophy runner-up, quarterback Deshaun Watson. All of them, along with returning starters Tyquan Lewis, Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Gareon Conley, probably have to play well for OSU to win and advance to the national championship game on Jan. 9 against the winner of today’s Alabama-Washington semifinal in the Peach Bowl.
Offense has been a hit or miss proposition for No. 3 Ohio State (11-1). But its defense has been more consistent.
No. 3 Clemson (12-1) is averaging 40.2 points a game and has scored 37, 54, 42, 35, 56 and 42 points in its last six game.
Watson has passed for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns and has rushed for 526 yards. Receiver Mike Williams has caught 84 passes for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns and five other receivers have between 29 and 71 catches.
There is no hiding the importance of Ohio State’s defense, especially its secondary, playing well against Clemson’s passing game.
“It’s definitely a competition with us. We feel like we can stop them from making plays. They feel like they can make plays. We’re just going to go out there and do our jobs and let it roll from there,” Hooker said.
Clemson lost 45-40 to Alabama in last year’s College Playoff national championship game.
The Tigers got back to the playoff despite having nine of last year’s starters selected in the NFL draft, including three defensive linemen and three defensive backs. Only Ohio State, with 12 drafted players, had more players selected.
Obviously, Ohio State can’t win without some offensive contributions. And it probably can’t get the necessary production it needs on offense unless its passing game improves significantly from the 105 yards it averaged in the air in its final two regular-season games against Michigan State and Michigan.
The Tigers also will be a challenge for OSU’s offensive line. They ranked second nationally in sacks with 46 and their pressure helped create 18 interceptions, just one fewer than Ohio State.