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Fiesta Bowl Preview and Prediction for #2 Clemson vs #3 Ohio State

#2 Clemson seeks its second consecutive National Championship Game appearance and to improve to 3-0 all-time versus #3 Ohio State.

Welcome to the College Football Playoff edition of What We Are Hearing!

 

I’ll start with my grades and analysis of the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers led #23 Virginia Tech throughout and collected consecutive ACC Titles for the first time in 28 years in addition to securing their second consecutive seat at the playoff table. It was the 16th ACC Title for Clemson, and the Tigers have now won more ACC titles than any other school, including FSU (15). There weren’t quite as many Clemson fans in Orlando as there were in nearby Charlotte last year, but there was still a huge contingent, and those clad in orange definitely outnumbered those in maroon. Here are my grades for the Tigers’ ACC Championship Game performance…

OFFENSE:  A-

Just as they did in their previous two games against Wake and South Carolina, the Tigers got off to a great start offensively, scoring touchdowns on their first 3 possessions. It was looking like the game was going to be a rout, but a targeting call on Dorian O’Daniel prevented another three-and-out, and a subsequent fake punt and touchdown gave the Hokies and their fans new life.

The Tigers’ scoring was identical in each half, scoring 14, 7, 14 and 7 in quarters one through four. The Tigers produced 470 yards of total offense, a little under the bench mark of 500, but 42 points in a championship game is more than acceptable. The Tigers had good balance, rushing for 182 yards and passing for 288. They were an impressive 6 of 11 on 3rd down and, more importantly, 5 for 5 in the red zone with 5 touchdowns. They ran 75 plays, 5 under the target, but they possessed the ball for nearly 4 minutes longer than the Hokies.

As usual, Watson was in Heisman form on the big stage. He was 23-34 for 288 yards with 3 passing touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed for 85 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Gallman did not have his best game, but he did score a touchdown, which proved to be an important one. He rushed for 59 yards on 3.5 yards per carry. C.J. Fuller continued to show why Tony Elliott moved him ahead of Choice in the pecking order. He rushed for 40 yards on just 5 carries.

Jordan Leggett had another huge game, scoring 2 touchdowns on 4 catches for 49 yards. For my money, he’s the best tight end in the nation, but for the second year in a row he was only a Mackey Award Finalist rather than the winner.

The wide receiver group as a whole played well. Deon Cain led the team with 69 yards on just 2 catches. Renfrow had 2 for 46 and a touchdown, Willliams had 5 catches for 57 yards and Artavis Scott had 7 for 48. Unfortunately, Trevion Thompson broke his wrist at the end of the game and will miss the remainder of the season as well as the beginning of spring practice.

Finally, the offensive line was once again fantastic in pass protection, not allowing a single sack to Bud Foster’s defense.

 

DEFENSE:  C-

Like the offense, the defense was fairly consistent, allowing 7 points in each of the first 3 quarters. Unfortunately, they could not keep a two-score lead in the second half and allowed 14 points in the final quarter. On the bright side, the D stepped up when they had to, as they usually do, preventing the Hokies from tying the game on their final possession thanks to Tankersley’s diving interception. It was Tankersley’s second interception of the game, and both demonstrated his considerable ball skills. His first-half INT would have been a respectable catch by NFL wide receiver standards, dragging both feet in bounds on the sideline. Evidently Tank likes the ACC Championship Game because he came up with a huge diving interception against North Carolina last year as well. He is now 4th on the active ACC interception list with 8 picks in his career. Jadar Johnson is tied for 2nd with 9 interceptions.

Big Dex and Clelin Ferrell also had big games, each recording sacks and 2 tackles-for-loss. Carlos Watkins also had a sack and 1.5 TFL’s. In all, the Tigers had 4 sacks and 8 TFL’s in the game. They were great against the run, allowing 102 rushing yards and 284 pass yards for a respectable 386 total. However, the Tigers were not great on 3rd down, allowing the Hokies to convert on 7 of 15 opportunities. Of course, at least one of those conversions was thanks to a questionable penalty. The Hokies were 1 of 2 on 4th down. The Tigers also did not do a good job in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on all 3 of the Hokies’ trips.

Still, the ultimate objective is obviously to get enough stops to win the game, and the Tigers did that. They allowed 35 points, but the Hokies just scored 35 against Arkansas in the second half alone, so it can be a prolific offense and hard to stop. The secondary did a relatively good job on Bucky Hodges, allowing just one catch for 42 yards, but they had a difficult time stopping Cam Phillips—especially in the second half. Isaiah Ford also had 89 yards on just 4 catches.

We should keep in mind that Dorian O’Daniel missed the entire second half due to his targeting penalty, and that was a huge loss. Perhaps the best thing about the game from a defensive standpoint is the fact that O’Daniel will not have to miss any of the Ohio State game since his penalty occurred in the first half!

 

SPECIAL TEAMS:  C-

It was a strange game from a special teams standpoint, with not a single attempted field goal from either team. The Tigers also didn’t get a single kickoff return opportunity because Joey Slye kept kicking the ball out of the end zone. He had 6 touchbacks on 6 kicks. Huegel had 2 touchbacks on 7 kickoffs, but the Tigers’ coverage unit did a pretty good job, allowing just 108 yards on 5 returns. Andy Teasdall was not exactly a weapon. He averaged 34.6 yards on 5 punts, including one shank. However, he only allowed one return for 2 yards. Teasdall’s counterpart, on the other hand, did make a difference in the game. He averaged 44.8 yards on his 6 punts, including a 60-yarder, and Artavis Scott only had 2 returns for -5 yards. The biggest special teams play, of course, came on the fake punt converted by the Hokies in the first half, which led to their first touchdown of the game.

 

Before I dive into the Fiesta Bowl, I want to remind you all to check the Recruiting Radar Screen Forum regularly for updates and, as always, read Gary’s weekly Recruiting Radar for the latest intel on the recruiting front. By the way, the Radar will be posted on Tuesdays from now on, which allows a little more time to get responses from recruits following the weekend. The Tigers obviously had a huge week for the 2018 class recently, receiving commitments from Trevor Lawrence, the #1 overall prospect for 2018, and LB Jake Venables, son of Brent Venables. You can find our story on the Trevor Lawrence commitment HERE, complete with highlights and an interview with his high school coach. Lawrence, of course, chose Clemson over his home-state Georgia Bulldogs, which has been a nice trend for the Tigers. Both Charlie Whitehurst and Deshaun Watson were from the state of Georgia.

For those who had any concern about Venables leaving Clemson for a head coaching gig (of which I never had any), the commitment from Jake on Brent’s birthday should allay much of that concern. Brent will be perfectly content coaching his son at Clemson from 2018 to 2021 or ’22. It should also help with recruiting for prospects to be that much more confident that Venables isn’t going anywhere.

The 2018 class is loaded, and it will be interesting to see what dominoes start falling after the shockwaves of the Trevor Lawrence commitment start to take effect. As the football season winds down and 2017 National Signing Day inches closer, recruiting will be heating up! In fact, the Tigers could be in store for another commitment soon, so stay tuned! We’ll also keep you abreast of Clemson commits and prospects in the upcoming Under Armour and U.S. Army All-American Games.

Finally, it’s almost time to start getting excited about the hardwood Tigers! Don’t look now, but the 10-2 Tigers have won 8 straight games, including back-to-back road wins at Alabama and #22 South Carolina! They are 3-0 against the SEC, and if they can open the ACC with a road win at Wake Forest on Saturday, they will undoubtedly crack the top-25 for their big Littlejohn showdown against UNC!

On to the epic Fiesta Bowl College Football Playoff showdown….

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Clemson is 2-0 versus Ohio State, winning the last meeting in the Orange Bowl, 40-35 following the 2013 season. It was one of Urban Meyer’s two career bowl losses…..Clemson is the only program in the nation with a winning record against Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, having played at least twice against each…..Clemson handed legendary coach Woody Hayes a loss in his final game, the 1978 Gator Bowl. After Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass to seal the win for the Tigers, Hayes ran down the sideline and shoved Bauman. That proved to be the last straw for the volatile but celebrated Ohio State coach….Only 2 schools have won multiple bowl games against Ohio State. They are, amazingly, Clemson and South Carolina. The Tigers beat the Buckeyes in their only 2 meetings, 1978 Gator Bowl and the 2013 season Orange Bowl. The Gamecocks won back-to-back Outback Bowls against Ohio State under Lou Holtz....11 of Clemson’s 12 FBS opponents this season were bowl eligible, a school record. The previous record was 9 in 2010….With the 56-7 victory over South Carolina, Clemson set a record for largest margin of victory by an ACC team over an SEC team. Clemson also holds the second-largest margin, a 63-17 win over the Gamecocks…..The Clemson offense has converted on 3rd down 51.5% of the time, which is the second-best mark in school history. The current record is 51.6%, set by the 1978 team that beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl….The Clemson senior class tied the 2015 senior class with a 28-4 record in ACC regular season games….Clemson is one of just 10 Power Five schools with 10 or more wins for 6 or more consecutive seasons. The others are Alabama, Florida State, Texas, Ohio State, USC, Florida, Oregon, Miami and Virginia Tech….Deshaun Watson is just the 3rd player in ACC history to record 11,000 yards of offense in a career and the first junior to do so. The others to accomplish the feat were Phillip Rivers and Tajh Boyd, both having played as seniors….Clemson is 6-1 in games decided by 7 points or less this season. The only other time the Tigers have won as many such games was the 1948 season when they were 6-0 in those games….Clemson has won 10 straight true road games, a school record and the nation’s longest active streak….Clemson has the longest active streak in the AP Top 5 at 23 weeks. Alabama is second at 21 weeks…..Dabo is 10-5 against top-10 teams as head coach at Clemson…..

 

CLEMSON STATUS

The mood and temperament of the players is as good as you could hope for with a game of this magnitude 48 hours away. They appear sublimely confident and loose. Not that they seemed nervous before the Orange Bowl last year, but this time around they have the aura of a team that has been there and done that. Jadar Johnson is the perfect personification of that confidence, and in his usual candor, he told us that J.T. Barrett will not be the best quarterback he and the rest of his secondary has seen this year. It’s hard to dispute that statement since Johnson goes against the best quarterback in the nation every day in practice. In addition to the confidence exuded by the Tigers, it’s also nice that they are without the distraction that came with the Deon Cain suspension last year.

Dabo has told us since August that this is the easiest team he has ever coached, and it is the best team chemistry he has ever had. It is easy to believe that when you’re around this group. Despite how much youth there is on this team—they only have 22 juniors and seniors—there is a tremendous amount of leadership that permeates the locker room. You need look no further than a guy like Christian Wilkins, who is only a true sophomore but is as respected as any fifth-year senior in the nation.

Another one of the numerous leaders on this team, of course, is Ben Boulware. I asked him the other day what emotions he felt returning to the desert and whether it brought back all the bad memories and heartbreak of his last visit here. A couple of weeks ago, he told me it might feel like returning to the scene of the crime and would fill him with an intense motivation. However, he told me a couple days ago that he really didn’t feel any flashbacks from last year. Perhaps that’s because the team has been in Scottsdale all week and has yet to set foot inside that dome again, but it’s nice to hear most of the players say that they have put last year completely behind them. And, if anything, a sense of familiarity being on that field again might be a good thing—especially for the offense, which played so well against Alabama.

The Clemson offense enters the season on a roll. Ever since the Wake Forest game, Watson has been running with a different edge, and that has opened things up in the passing game. They were also protecting the football. The Tigers had just 3 turnovers in their final 3 games, which equals the number they had in the Pittsburgh loss. That will be one of the biggest—maybe the biggest—keys to beating Ohio State. If the Tigers win the turnover margin, they should win the game. When the Tigers have had one or no turnovers this season, they have outscored opponents by 36 points per game. When they have had more than one turnover, they are only +4 points. In a way, it would have been nice to play Ohio State a week after the ACC Championship Game because the Tigers were in such groove offensively. Dabo told me the ball security has been good in practice, and he attributes the turnover turnaround at the end of the season to a heightened sense of urgency. Perhaps the last-second loss to Pittsburgh was the wake-up call and blessing in disguise we all hoped it was. The Tigers are now even in the turnover margin for the season. They are now ranked #7 in passing offense (332.6 yards per game), #69 in rushing offense (173.1 yards/game), #13 in total offense (505.7 yards/game) and #15 in scoring offense (40.2 points/game).

Defensively, it was a little disconcerting the way Virginia Tech was able to score so quickly and easily in the second half of the ACC Championship Game—especially since the Hokies’ offense is the most similar to Ohio State’s that the Tigers have seen. However, the Tigers did come up with 4 sacks, 8 tackles-for-loss and a couple of interceptions. The Tigers have recorded multiple sacks in 11 straight games now, which is the longest active streak in the nation and longest such streak by an ACC team since 2007! In contrast to the offense, the long break could be a benefit to the defense because they will come into the Fiesta Bowl fully rested—especially guys like Scott Pagano, Richard Yeargin and Jalen Williams, who have been beset by injuries late in the season. With the exception of Trevion Thompson, the Tigers are at full strength now for the first time all season. The Tigers are now ranked #19 in pass defense (188.2 yards per game), #22 in rush defense (125.8 yards/game), #9 in total defense (313.9 yards/game) and #12 in scoring defense (18.4 points/game).

Finally, there are several Tigers who are highly incented to extend their Clemson career for one last game. Some of the best players and leaders to wear the Orange and Purple—Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Ben Boulware, Carlos Watkins, Jay Guillermo, Jadar Johnson, Cordrea Tankersley and Artavis Scott—are all leaving or likely to leave Clemson after this season, so you know how they will leave every ounce of blood and guts on that field in the hopes of leaving Clemson as National Champs.

 

OHIO STATE SYNOPSIS

Having foregone the formality of a conference championship game, the Buckeyes have had an even longer break than the Tigers. However, that might be just what they needed because they were anything but impressive in their last couple performances of the season. They avoided overtime with Michigan State thanks to Sparty’s decision to go for two rather than tie with a PAT, and they were outplayed on their own field by Michigan with an injured quarterback, who committed two big turnovers in the game, allowing Ohio State to win in overtime.

That being said, Ohio State is still a very dangerous team, and Urban Meyer is one of the very best in the business. There is a reason he has only lost two bowl games in his career and 61-5 at Ohio State. The good news is that one of the two bowl losses and one of his five Ohio State losses is to Clemson. The bad news is, you can bet that he will have a great game plan devised for his offense and add some wrinkles that the Clemson staff has not seen on film. You can also expect to see some trickery from him at some point in the game and likely on special teams. In fact, the Buckeyes ran a fake punt against the Tigers in the Orange Bowl a few years ago and converted, leading to a score. I asked Venables about that, and you can bet that he will be on high alert to expect the unexpected from Meyer.

Ohio State’s offense obviously starts with J.T. Barrett, the savvy veteran. Barrett, as you may recall, was the starter in 2014 before getting injured, and the Buckeyes went on to win the national title with Cardale Jones at QB. Barrett has been inconsistent at times this season and did not look great in his last few games. On the season, Barrett has completed 61.9% of his passes for 2,428 yards with 24 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He has also rushed for 847 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Barrett and Deshaun Watson were Elite 11 counselors together and have kept in touch since. Watson told me they exchanged a few text messages just after the CFP was revealed. These two quarterbacks are very similar from a leadership and experience standpoint. Both teams have full confidence and belief in their signal callers, and you can bet that Barrett won’t be rattled, even when behind.

Ohio State RB Mike Weber has had the unenviable task of filling NFL Rookie of the Year candidate Zeke Elliott’s shoes this season. He has rushed for 1,072 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Ohio State’s rushing attack is definitely not as formidable as it was with Elliott in the backfield.

Without question, the Buckeyes’ biggest weapon is H-back Curtis Samuel. He has 91 rushes for 704 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns this season, which really doesn’t do justice to the type of play-maker he is. There have games in which the Buckeyes did not get the ball in his hands as often as they should have. Samuel also has 65 catches for 822 yards and 7 touchdowns. If there’s one player on the field the Tigers CANNOT lose in coverage, it is Samuel. The Tigers’ defense received a good tune-up in Orlando, going against Cam Phillips, Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford, but they would tell you they are not pleased with how well they handled that challenge. Samuel will have the Tigers’ complete attention, so look for another Buckeye to step up in the passing game—perhaps Noah Brown.

The Ohio State offense is #9 in rush offense (258.3 yards per game), #78 in passing offense (221.2 yards/game), #20 in total offense (479.5 yards/game) and #9 in scoring offense (42.7 points/game).

As respectable as they are on offense, the Buckeyes’ strength lies in their defense. In particular, they have the best secondary the Tigers will have seen. Look out for #24 safety Malik Hooker on the back end. He is a true ball hawk and has 3 pick-sixes this season. As a unit, Ohio State has 7 pick-sixes this season, which leads the nation. It was a pick-six in the first half that enabled Ohio State to beat Michigan in Columbus in the Buckeyes’ last game. The good news is that Watson has only thrown one pick-six in his LIFE, which came in the NC State game this season. The bad news is that it wasn’t the only questionable decision by Watson this season. He has done a great job avoiding interceptions in the last 3 games after throwing 3 against Pitt, but he will have to be ultra-conscientious of that opportunistic Ohio State defense on Saturday night. To be fair, Watson played one of the best games I’ve ever seen against Pitt despite the 3 interceptions, and 2 of them weren’t his fault. He was 52-70 in that game for 580 yards, and if he does that on Saturday night, Clemson will win the game. Let’s just hope Watson doesn’t try to force any passes in the red zone and is ever-mindful of where the linebackers and DB’s are at all times.

Ohio State is ranked #13 in rush defense (117.8 yards per game), #5 in pass defense (164.5 yards/game), #3 in total defense (282.3 yards/game) and also #3 in scoring defense (14.2 points/game).

 

PREDICTION

This Fiesta Bowl is the sexiest matchup of the bowl season in my opinion. There are matchups galore all over the field. The biggest one will certainly be Clemson’s #1 WR corps in the nation going up against one of the best secondaries in the nation. I have yet to see the unit that can stop Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett. The only ones to have stopped the Tigers’ offense all season have been…the Tigers—with dropped passes, turnovers and penalties. Another big factor will be whether the Ohio State offensive line can protect Barrett. The Buckeyes have allowed more sacks since late October than any other team, so that bodes well for a Clemson defense that loves to blitz under Brent Venables and has recorded multiple sacks in more consecutive games than even Alabama. The Tigers are 17-0 when Gallman rushes for 100 yards, so if the Wayne Train hits that mark it’s game over. But the Tigers don’t have to rely on Gallman in the running game, obviously. As I stated earlier, Watson has been running with a renewed purpose and vigor, and if he can keep the Ohio State defense guessing and on its heels, the Tigers will be able to hit on some big plays down field. I also loved the run-pass option we saw Elliott run to Renfrow for what would be the game-winning touchdown against Virginia Tech. The Tigers have run that play other times this season, but it’s the first time they ran it in that area of the field for a touchdown, and I’d like to see it once or twice more on Saturday night.

You could dissect the matchups between these two powerhouse teams all day long, but in the final analysis, #4 is the ultimate difference-maker for the Tigers. Watson has always played at his very best on these stages, and I expect nothing different on Saturday night. He is 30-2 in games he has started and finished, and in his only 2 losses, he put together a couple of the greatest performances you will ever see, scoring 40 points against Alabama’s great defense and setting an ACC passing record of 580 yards against Pitt.

Saturday night will be no different. DW will do what DW does. The Tigers improve to 3-0 all-time versus Ohio State and 2-0 versus Urban Meyer in bowl games, setting up a historic National Championship Game rematch with Clemson’s familiar cousin and Dabo Swinney’s alma mater, Alabama.

The Prowl toward a second National Title continues……

 

 

 

CLEMSON  38    Ohio State  28

 


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