Carlos Watkins and the Tigers' defensive line will do its part to limit Ohio State's big plays on offense
For Clemson, this College Football Playoff appearance has a much different feel. The run to last year’s national championship game was glorious for everyone associated with Clemson football. Getting over the Florida State hurdle, winning the ACC, and taking Alabama right to the end in a classic title contest made for a magical season.
What it also did was raise the bar for 2016. While this fall was one to remember in its own right, this season will not be complete without a national title. But the team on the other sideline, led by a coach that has three national championship rings, feels the same way.
Here are five reasons why the 2015 runner-ups will beat the 2014 national champions in the Fiesta Bowl.
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Win the Fiesta Bowl
1. The Clemson Defense Won’t Allow Big Passing Plays
The Tigers allowed 13 plays of 40 yards or more this season, which ranked 54th in the country. That’s not terrible, but it seemed like the majority of those 13 were very harmful. Pittsburgh got off to a great start in its upset victory in Death Valley because of three big plays, Dalvin Cook burned Clemson with two long runs, and Virginia Tech hung around in the ACC Championship Game because of a couple big receptions. The difference in the Fiesta Bowl is that Ohio State has had difficulty stretching the field. The Buckeyes ranked 104th nationally with just nine plays totaling more than 40 yards and only four of those came through the air. That is especially important because of...
2. Clemson's Third Down Defense
The guys in orange don't allow sustained drives, allowing just a 29.5 percent conversion rate on third down. Part of the success is due to putting teams in third-and-long situations. Clemson is third in tackles for lost yardage and second behind Alabama in yards lost on those tackles. Ohio State has been successful converting on third downs and not getting stopped behind the line of scrimmage. But this Clemson defensive front will create negative plays.
3. Pass Rush
One of the ways Clemson will put Ohio State in reverse is by sacking the quarterback, something the Tigers did 46 times this year. Perhaps even more impressive is that pressure is a total team effort as 10 Tiger defenders have multiple sacks, led by Carlos Watkins with eight and a half and freshman sensation Dexter Lawrence with seven. This is a big problem for Ohio State because the Buckeyes have allowed 25 sacks on the year despite ranking 75th in pass attempts. In the final game of the regular season, Michigan sacked Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett eight times. The Buckeyes finding a way to slow down Clemson’s defensive line is one of the big keys to this game.
4. Offensive Balance
Ohio State has a very strong defense and the teams that have been the most trouble have had offensive balance. Wisconsin ran for 236 yards and threw for 214. Northwestern ran for 148 and passed for 258. With the resurgence of the Clemson running game late in the year, the Tigers again have the ability to mix things up. The combination of Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman will keep Ohio State off balance all night.
5. Deshaun Watson
The Buckeyes did face a top quarterback when they tangled with Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma. But that was way back in week three and since that time they have not had to deal with any signal-caller quite like Watson. Also, in the latter part of the season Watson again became an integral part of the running game. The two-time Heisman finalist is by far the best dual-threat quarterback Ohio State has faced.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.