Ohio State and Clemson square off in the desert with a national championship shot on the line.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl – College Football Playoff Semifinal

Dec. 31 at 7:00 PM ET (ESPN)

No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 2 Clemson (12-1)

 

How They Got Here

Clemson is in the playoffs for the second consecutive year thanks to Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson and a stout defense that led the Tigers to back-to-back ACC championships for the first time since 1987-88.

Ohio State, meanwhile, entered the season with the nation’s fewest returning starters (6). But the young Buckeyes didn’t get the memo this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Although an upset loss to Penn State kept Ohio State out of the Big Ten title game, the Buckeyes still received a playoff invite thanks to big wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan.

When Ohio State Has the Ball

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Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett can make plays with his arm (2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns this year), but the Buckeyes are a run-first team. Ohio State ranks ninth nationally in rushing offense and boasts three players with 500+ rushing yards apiece. The Buckeyes have rushed for 200+ yards 10 times this season and average better than 5.5 yards per carry. Running back Curtis Samuel is a big play dual threat with 704 rushing yards and 822 receiving to go with 15 total touchdowns.

It will be important for the Buckeyes to have success on early downs. Clemson’s defense is solid and allows opponents to convert on third down just 29.5 percent of the time (the sixth-lowest conversion rate in the nation). Moreover, the Tiger defense is one of the nation’s most aggressive, with 46 sacks and 112 tackles for loss (both third nationally). Defensive coordinator Brent Venables would like nothing more than to get Ohio State in long-yardage situations and bring the house.

When Clemson Has the Ball

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There’s a reason Deshaun Watson has been a two-time Heisman finalist. All the senior has done the last two years is throw for over 8,000 yards, rush for 1,600 more and score 90 touchdowns while leading the Tigers to back-to-back playoff appearances. The Tigers rank seventh nationally in passing offense and All-American receiver Mike Williams (84 catches for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns this year) is always a big play threat.

But the key for Ohio State’s defense is taking away Watson in the running game. Clemson ranks just 67th nationally in rushing offense, but Watson’s ability to keep plays alive can be lethal for a defense. Ohio State ranks third nationally in total defense (fifth in passing) and has the potential to stifle the Tiger offense. But doing it on paper and shutting down Deshaun Watson in real life are two different things.

Keys to the Game

For Ohio State, the key player could well be All-American middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan as it will be his responsibility to read and react to Deshaun Watson in the run game. McMillan had 33 tackles in his last three games (including 16 in the win over Michigan) and will need to contain Watson when coverage breaks down to keep him from picking up first downs with his legs. While Watson can still beat you through the air, beating Clemson gets much easier if you make them one-dimensional.

Likewise, look for Clemson’s rush defense to load up to stop the run. If they can and force J.T. Barrett into third-and-long situations, the Tiger defense—which ranks third nationally in sacks—could be in for a big day. However, while Clemson’s defense is good, they have given up 13 rushing touchdowns and 4.1 yards per carry in five games against ranked opponents. If Barrett and the Buckeyes are able to move the ball on the ground and keep Deshaun Watson on the sidelines, they could grind out a win and a trip to the national championship game.