Preview: Ohio State faces Clemson in College Football Playoff semifinal

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (WCMH) — For the third time in five years, Ohio State will face Clemson for a spot in the national championship.

No. 3 Ohio State is just a few hours away from playing No. 2 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

The Buckeyes have a chance to avenge last year’s semifinal loss to the Tigers and clinch a spot in the national championship for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

OSU is making its second-straight playoff appearance and fourth since the CFP began in 2015.

Ohio State must beat a Clemson team that has haunted the Buckeyes, particularly in the playoffs. The Tigers beat OSU 29-23 in a heartbreaking Fiesta Bowl loss that ended with a Justin Fields’ interception in the endzone with less than a minute left in the game.

Clemson also beat Ohio State convincingly 31-0 in the 2017 semifinals. But this season has been unlike any other with the Buckeyes playing just six games, including the Big Ten Championship game the Buckeyes won 22-10 over Northwestern.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t believe the Buckeyes should be in the playoffs and ranked OSU No. 11 in his coaches poll. Swinney said he didn’t rank any team in the top 10 that played fewer than nine games.

“What universe am I living in?” Swinney said. “In my opinion, Texas A&M, Florida, Oklahoma, Cincinnati — they got punished for playing more games.”

Swinney did confess Ohio State is more than capable of beating his Tigers — and beating Clemson is something OSU players have wanted to do ever since leaving Arizona empty-handed last year.

“That game hurt a lot last year,” OSU quarterback Justin Fields said. “It’s been the motivation this year to get a chance to play them again. Excited for another chance to play those guys.”

“I think [Fields] left that field wanting another shot, and now he gets that shot,” Ryan Day said. “He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.”

Cornerback and AP first team All-American Shaun Wade decided to return for his senior year in part because of how his junior year ended. Wade was ejected from last year’s game late in the second quarter after a controversial targeting call on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

“One play can change the whole game,” Fields said. “Last year, it was the targeting call on Shaun Wade.”

Ohio State defensive advantages

The Buckeyes are stout when it comes to stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.

RUN DEFENSE — OSU ranks seventh in the country in run defense allowing 96 yards a game. The Buckeyes held Northwestern, a team that averaged more than 170 yards a game, to 105 yards on the ground.

Clemson, led by running back Travis Etienne, will try to exploit OSU’s defensive front — a feat no Big Ten team was able to accomplish.

But the Tigers are better than any team Ohio State has faced this season when it comes to running the ball. Clemson averages a 163 yards rushing and Etienne who struggled against the Buckeyes last year will look to put on a show in his hometown of New Orleans.

Lawrence is a capable runner too when a play breaks down or a keep is called as he’s showed numerous times in the past three years, including this 67-yard touchdown run against OSU last year.

FRONT 4 — Lawrence will have to deal with Ohio State’s ability to get into the backfield. The Buckeyes’ 50% pressure rate is the highest in the nation with OSU pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 124 of 257 pass-rush snaps.

OSU will get pressure on Lawrence, but simply blitzing Lawrence won’t be enough. The Clemson quarterback ranks first in the country in passing grade (90.2) handling the blitz for 2019 and 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.

“It’s gonna be a big challenge. He’s a dynamic quarterback. Usually guys that big and long don’t run a lot,” defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “He can extend plays and if the play breaks down and there’s good coverage, he’s gonna try to get it done with his legs.”

Garrett leads the Buckeyes’ front four, which is ranked as the No. 1 defensive front out of all teams in the power five conferences, according to PFF.

Ohio State’s defensive disadvantage

SECONDARY — Ohio State’s pass defense has been porous throughout this shortened season ranking 104th in pass yards allowed per game (260).

The Buckeyes gave up nearly 500 yards passing to Indiana, 251 yards in the second half against Penn State and 231 yards to Rutgers.

If OSU doesn’t address the ongoing issues in its secondary, Clemson will capitalize and this game could turn into a shootout, or worse, a rout. The Tigers rank third in country in pass yards per game (343) and seventh in passing touchdowns this season (29).

“We’re going to be ready” cornerback Shaun Wade said. “We’ve been getting better over the weeks . . . their receivers and our secondary is going to be even, so it just comes down to the little things.”

Trevor Lawrence, a Heisman finalist, is just outside the top 10 in total passing yards and total touchdowns, but he’d be higher if not for missing two games after testing positive for the coronavirus. Lawrence benefits from one of the top receiving corps in the country.

“Those are some of the best wide receivers in the country in our facility and these guys that we’re playing are just like them and so the ability to compete against great skill day in and day out is critical,” OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said.

Ohio State’s offensive advantages

BALANACE — The Buckeyes are one of the most well-balanced teams in the country. OSU’s rush attack is lethal averaging 275 yards a game, which is fifth-best in the nation. The passing game, led by Fields, is equally effective averaging 253 yards a game and an efficiency rate of 174.5 (No. 9 in the nation).

Trey Sermon went off for an OSU single-game record 331 yards in the Big Ten Championship against Northwestern and as a team OSU ran for nearly 400 yards.

“There were a couple times it felt like we had J.K. back there with how [Sermon] was taking off,” offensive guard and 1st team All-American Wyatt Davis said.

The Buckeyes won’t come close to 400 yards against Clemson, but even eclipsing 200 yards gives OSU a fighting chance versus the Tigers.

RECEIVERS — Ohio State has arguably the best 1-2 receiver combination in the country in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Olave missed the Big Ten championship game due to COVID-19 but is available for the Sugar Bowl.

Olave and Wilson have five touchdowns a piece and combined for more than 1,100 yards receiving. Those two, along with Jameson Williams and Julian Fleming, will be essential in a Buckeyes’ win.

TIGHT ENDS — Ohio State’s tight ends are also arguably the bets in the country. Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert haven’t been used much in the pass game, but just their presence on the field makes a difference. Plays of 25 yards or more like this touchdown to Olave against Penn State resulted in part because both tight ends were on the field.

Ohio State’s offensive disadvantage

The only disadvantage the Buckeyes have is more accurately described as a fault, and it’s one no one expected coming into the year and certainly not after the way the year started.

In his first three games, Justin Fields was as close to perfect as possible completing 72 of 83 passes for a ridiculous completion percentage of 86.7 percent.

Last year, Justin Fields threw a whopping three interceptions in 14 games. In fact, Fields had one pick during 13 regular season games compared to 40 touchdowns ending the season with NCAA Division I single-season record of highest touchdown-to-interception ratio.

But this season, specifically two games, Fields has shown flashes of poor decision making, which led to three interceptions against Indiana and two picks against Northwestern.

These plays are exceptions to the rule when it comes to Fields. But even one or two exceptions could be detrimental against Clemson as it was last year when Fields threw two picks against the Tigers.

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