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Fiesta Bowl Preview: Ohio State vs. Clemson

Undoing Dabo

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Read-Ahead

Bowl previews are a bit of a faff, especially where the playoffs are concerned. What do you need to know about DeShaun Watson that I’ll somehow be the first to tell you? Other than that he’s living proof that it’s damn hard to catch lightning in a jar twice (but let’s be honest, J.T. Barrett is Exhibit B in that respect). Nevertheless, we forge onward...

Who: Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Clemson Tigers

Clemson currently lays claim to the #2 spot in the country, despite barely escaping unranked NC State and losing to the rather pedestrian #23 Pitt Panthers. Ohio State holds down the #3 spot, with a skin-of-their-teeth loss to #5 Penn State and no conference championship appearance. This makes for a bit of an odd half to this year’s semifinal. The last two times these teams met, Clemson pulled off a 5-point victory in the Orange bowl and ended Braxton Miller’s QB career with a shoulder injury. For those keeping score, that game dropped OSU to 0-2 all-time against the Tigers. Their previous matchup cost Woody his job, so there’s a bit of bad blood here.

What: The Fiesta Bowl

The bowl itself is now on its sixth or sponsor, and its second in two years. Last year, when the Buckeyes trounced the accursed Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Glendale, it was the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl. No one was sure what a Battlefrog was then (an extreme mud race presenter) and even fewer are sure what it is now (they’ve cancelled all races to focus on media and content). This year, it’s brought to us by Playstation. You might remember Playstation as the machine that once allowed you to play NCAA football with a cheek-straining grin on your face until Ed O’Bannon opened his yap.

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium

It’s a beautiful new facility in the Phoenix metroplex—which itself is simply a holding pattern for old Midwesterners looking to get in a few rounds of golf before they shuffle off their mortal coil.

When: Saturday, 31 December 6:00 PM CST

Why: Because a grown man who goes by “Dabo” cannot be allowed to win anything.

The Breakdown


Ohio State and Clemson are offensive cousins. Both operate out a spread-to-run base set. Both prefer to run 11 personnel and rely heavily on three WR formations. The difference lies in their strengths and strategies.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes really only have one true starting WR on the outside in Noah Brown, and thus make use of two H-back talents in the form of Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson. The strength of the Buckeyes down the stretch has been working Samuel into a variety of roles and looks, lining him up as a pass catcher and as a backfield threat. The other consistent threat in the passing game has been J.T. Barrett as a dual-threat, especially in the run-pass option. While he’s been maligned for his downfield throwing (25+ yard targets) he’s been quite consistent in the middle and underneath routes in pressure situation. The strike to Marcus Baugh late in the Michigan game and the game-breaking strike to Parris Campbell against Northwestern are good examples of both.

The other, and far more dangerous threat, has been the power running game. Mike Weber isn’t a signature back yet, but he’s been the workhorse of an offense that averages 5.5 ypc on the season. Working alongside Barrett and Samuel, Weber has helped craft one of the best and most consistent rushing attacks in the country.


The key to Dabo’s offense remains Deshaun Watson, as you would expect. Clemson is an average rushing team among the Power 5 (33rd in S&P+), and has had trouble this year generating any inside push to create running lanes for RB Wayne Gallman. The Tigers compensate for the lack of a run game by getting the ball to the edge as much as possible. Of particular note is the WR or RB screen, which they will run from a passing set or from the run-pass option look. The goal is to get the ball away from the middle, where their linemen routinely fail to get a push or provide strong protection.

Clemson’s receiver corps is notably stronger than OSU’s from a pure receiver standpoint, but certainly not from an overall athleticism or playmaking standpoint. Their single biggest playmaking threat is Deshaun Watson. Like Ohio State, they lean heavily on the QB’s ability to run because it creates numerical advantages inside that compensate for poor blocking.

Looking at tendencies, Clemson prefers to leverage Watson’s accuracy in the passing game to punish defenses for playing downhill against their otherwise easily contained screens. That’s what makes the run-pass option look so dangerous to defenses: Clemson will lure defenses into playing the screen off the RPO and then target double out routes downfield, or TE Jordan Leggett. Watson can use the same concept to punish soft coverage by corners in Cover 4.

Key for OSU to win: Take away the Clemson run game completely, the way Pitt did. The Panthers made the Tigers into a downfield passing offense, and that put them in a position to make Watson be perfect in order to move the ball consistently. OSU’s secondary is a step above Pitt.


Up front, the defenses again look similar: highly athletic defensive lines playing a 4-3 over base set with walk-out linebackers against spread sets. The difference, again, is in the details.

Ohio State

Expect to see much of the same “basic defense” against Clemson. That is to say, the Buckeyes will likely sit in Cover 4. This will either make or break the game. If Clemson successfully targets the double out route sets they’ve relied on this season, they’ll be eating up yards in chunks. OSU corners play the deep quarter in cover 4, which provides space for Clemson’s athletic receivers to find receiving lanes. The upside of this defense is that it’s designed to limit the screen game Clemson loves so much. By the same token, avoiding man coverage means that OSU’s secondary can keep its eyes in the backfield rather than turning toward the endzone to keep pace with a streaking receiver. Given Watson’s running prowess, that’s crucial.

The big question will be how quickly Ohio State can bottle up Wayne Gallman in the run game. As mentioned above, Clemson isn’t particularly powerful on the ground. Where OSU lost a step from last season in the pass rush (15 sacks got drafted) they’ve improved against the run and as a unit overall. Watson likes to make quick decisions. If he can’t, he almost always takes off running. Expect to see Ohio State lean on the odd-front “Rushmen” package in long yardage situations to create the numbers advantage they’ll need to get good pressure.


Brett Venables is one of the best and most consistent DCs in the country, which means he’s likely not long for the assistant ranks. Nonetheless, he’s there now and he’s created a very interesting defense. Urban Meyer has mentioned more than once that Clemson is several defenses in one. This is born out in looking at their sets. The Tigers mix aggressive standard down blitzes with a variety of complex coverage schemes. Venables often relies on Cover 6 (Cover 4 to the field side, Cover 2 to the short side). That said, they’ll also run Cover 3 with a strong rotation, or play man.

The multiple coverages are important because they slow down the QB’s read. Against a normal defense, this would be troublesome. Against Clemson’s extremely athletic defensive line, it’s a nightmare. Read times are shortened considerably, so by the time a QB realizes that the cornerback is rotating down to the boundary flat and the safety is sliding out to the deep third, he’s got DE Christian Wilkins or blitzing LB Ben Boulware in his face.

This all ties into their somewhat unconventional philosophy of outside-in leverage. Where most college defenses seek to string plays to the boundaries to buy time for second-level tacklers to flow to the ball, Clemson uses its less talented secondary (Condrea Tankersley being a notable exception) to force plays back inside. That secondary has shown difficulty tackling in space this season, which probably drives Venables’ philosophy to a point.

The flip side of Clemson’s defensive multiple personalities is that they’ve been susceptible to breakdowns in pass coverage. Offenses often flip their formations to show the defense a different look, moving boundary receivers to the softer Cover 4 field side to find space.

Key for OSU to win: Break formation tendency and use outside-to-inside strategies to keep Clemson’s boundary defenders wide in order to open up lanes. Leverage the power read and BASH sweeps, and get Samuel in space against poor-tackling defenders. When Clemson has the ball, take away the quick decision and make Watson think, then wait for the INT opportunities.