The Ohio State defense will have many assignments to cover when it faces a potent Clemson offense in one of the two College Football Playoff semifinal games on Dec. 31.
The Tigers boast running back Wayne Gallman, who has rushed for 1,002 yards and 15 touchdowns this year, in addition to wide receiver Mike Williams, who has caught 84 passes for 1,171 yards and 10 scores.
Despite those staggering numbers, neither of the two skill players is Clemson’s top offensive weapon.
Enter quarterback Deshaun Watson. The junior gunslinger has piled up 4,440 yards of total offense this year (3,914 passing, 526 rushing) and has accounted for 43 total touchdowns.
Watson was also a finalist for this year’s Heisman Trophy, placing second in the final voting behind Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“I definitely feel like he’s one of the better players in college football right now,” OSU sophomore safety Malik Hooker said of Watson. “He was runner-up for Heisman and stuff like that, and I definitely feel like that speaks for itself. He’s out there doing what he can, he’s the leader of their team, and he’s definitely one of their playmakers on their offense.”
Ohio State sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker echoed Hooker’s thoughts on Watson but added that he is looking forward to the test the opposing quarterback will present.
“One thing for me with a quarterback is he can do it all,” Baker said. “That’s a very good challenge. Any quarterback that can run and throw, any quarterback that can throw it anywhere they want on the field, that’s going to be fun. I’m pretty excited just to see how it goes.”
Watson has thrown for 37 touchdowns while running for another six. He now holds the program record for most scoring tosses in a season.
“I feel like he’s very versatile,” Hooker said. “He’s a quarterback that can throw it almost 65 yards, but he’s built like a running back. So, I feel like he can run the ball as well. He’s just capable of doing many things at his position.”
With Watson’s ability to run the ball and escape pressure so effectively, Buckeye junior defensive end Jalyn Holmes said it will be crucial for the defense to execute the basics and not try to do too much individually.
“Going against a guy like that I feel like we have to be as fundamentally sound as we can,” Holmes said. “That’s a guy who can capitalize on any little mistake.”
OSU realizes that it will not always get to Watson before he throws it since he is not one to hang onto the ball. With that in mind, sophomore defensive end Sam Hubbard said the key to disrupting the Clemson passing attack will be deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage.
“We want to affect the throw by getting our hands up, getting in his face, so we’re more focusing on that than worrying about him scrambling and containing him because he is such an accurate thrower,” Hubbard said.
Junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis reiterated the importance of clogging Watson’s passing lanes.
“He’s a great quarterback so the main thing is pass rush, getting him off the spot but also being aware of where he is in the pocket, not running behind him,” Lewis said. “And I can say more than likely getting our hands up and batting the balls down.”
The talented Tiger trigger man has completed 329 of 487 passes and ranks fourth in the nation in completions, fifth in touchdown passes, seventh in total offense and ninth in completion percentage (67.6).
One downfall Watson has is that he is turnover prone. His 15 interceptions are tied for third-most among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks.
Though he is averaging a little more than one pick per game, OSU junior linebacker Chris Worley believes that is no suggestion as to what Watson will do vs. the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Just because he may have thrown five, 10, 15 interceptions, that is no indication of how he’ll play against us,” Worley said. “Some of those he may have took chances on some things, some of those may have been tipped balls. So, you can never really look at how someone has performed against other teams, especially when they perform bad. The type of game and what’s at stake, you expect them to be at their best and have their best game. We would love if he throws a couple picks, but we can’t just expect that.”