PHOENIX - The Ohio State defense has taken on elite quarterbacks in recent history. Just this year, the Buckeyes took on the likes of Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and two years ago defeated Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota in the 2015 CFP National Title Game.
However, on Saturday in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl semi-final, the Buckeye defense could be taking on their biggest challenge yet in terms of great signal callers when OSU lines up across from Deshaun Watson.
The former Ohio State target and 2016 Heisman runner up is set to start in the playoff for the second straight season, the first quarterback to do so in the playoff's three years of existence. After watching film on Watson, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said Watson is one of the best players he has ever gone up against.
"He's one of the elite ones that I've faced for a lot of reasons. One, he makes you play 11-on-11 football. He can run the football," Schiano said Wednesday. "Number two, he's got tremendous arm strength. So from any spot on the field, whether he's in the pocket or he's moving, by design movement passes or the play breaks down and he just uses his athleticism to get out, he can hit the -- he can throw the ball 50, 60 yards down the field. That's what makes you really have to be honest with every part of your coverage."
In addition to being one of the best players in the country, Watson has other top tier athletes surrounding him that make him so special. Three of his teammates on the offense side of the ball alone have already said they will forego their final season at Clemson to enter the 2017 NFL Draft. Running back Wayne Gallman and wide receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams have joined Watson in making their intentions known for the NFL.
With so many weapons surrounding Watson, Schiano said that Ohio State's play in the secondary could be the difference in the game.
"(Clemson has) the best unit of receivers that we've ever played, certainly Mike is an elite level guy, but I think the guys that surround him are not far back. That's what makes it a challenge," Schiano said. "If you had one great receiver you can do certain things to take him out of the game or limit his chances to touch the ball. But when you do that you leave yourself exposed in other places but you can't in this offense. The other guys will beat you there. So you gotta play more balanced up and hope that you can -- you're not going to win every battle but hope you win your share."
Even with so much next level talent on the Tiger's side of the ball, Schiano said he has confidence in the Ohio State secondary, especially the corners, to make plays on the football while it's in the air. He added a large part of that is the corners ability to stay fresh with the trio of Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward constantly rotating throughout the games.
"When you talk about our corners, you have to talk about all three," Schiano said. "When I first got here, we were talking about playtime and both our corners last year (Eli Apple, Conley) took over 1,000 snaps each and that is hard...especially with the way we play, mostly press man coverage.
"The one thing that makes Marshon exceptional is his ball skills. I think if we flipped him to the (offensive) side, he would be one of the best receivers on the team. Gareon just has a really good athletic set and spacial relations. Denzel has the least experience, but he might be the most twitched up of them all as far as his explosion."
While Ohio State has confidence in defending Clemson's elite air attack, Buckeye linebacker Raekwon McMillan said it the Tiger's RPO plays (Run, pass option) that make them so hard to defend.
"Whenever you have an RPO, (Watson) has a chance to get the ball or pass it to one of the best receivers on the team. So anytime you think it's a run but then he pulls the ball and then throws it to the receiver," McMillan said. "So if you're making too much of him throwing it to the receiver, then he gives it to Wayne Gallman who is a running back, once he gets to the next level, it's hard to take him down."
As for whether or not Watson is the best signal caller he has seen in his time at Ohio State, McMillan said only time will tell.
"I won't know until after the game. So you can ask me after," he said.