SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There’s no mistaking what’s at stake for Ohio State this week.
The third-ranked Buckeyes are set to take on No. 2 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. The winner will advance to the College Football Playoff national championship game. Ohio State won the 2014 playoff, and a second title in three years would further cement its status as one of the elite programs in college football.
To get a shot at another national championship, however, the Buckeyes will have to get past Clemson. Here are five keys to watch for:
1. The Ohio State offensive line
More than anything else, this game will be decided by the Ohio State offensive line. Led by All-Americans Pat Elflein (center) and Billy Price (right guard), Ohio State is one of the best run-blocking teams in the country. However, the same can’t be said for the line’s pass blocking. The Buckeyes allowed eight sacks against Michigan, and it nearly cost them the game. Right tackle Isaiah Prince has been the main culprit this season when things go wrong, but there have been breakdowns across the line.
Against Clemson, the Buckeyes will face a huge test. The Tigers rank third nationally in sacks per game (3.54). Their defensive line is an absolute force. Ohio State believes it can fix its offensive line over the course of bowl prep. The Buckeyes’ success depends on it.
2. Finishing pressure
Ohio State’s defensive line has done a great job of generating pressure this season. However, their hounding of quarterbacks hasn’t always led to sacks. The Buckeyes average just 2.17 sacks per game, which ranks 54th nationally.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and with good reason. He has a knack for making plays, especially with extended time. Ohio State will need to make sure it not only forces early throws but also generates sacks and tackles for loss that become drive-killing mistakes for offenses.
3. Forcing mistakes
If there’s one criticism of Watson that can be made, it’s his interception total. He threw 15 interceptions in 13 games this season. (Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, by comparison, threw five picks in 12 games.) Ohio State’s defense thrives on turnovers, and the Buckeyes will have the opportunity to capitalize on Saturday.
Watson makes some elite throws, but he also tries to force passes into some windows that he shouldn’t. If the Buckeyes can take away some possessions — or even score on defense — they have to like their odds.
4. Balanced offense
Ohio State’s worst offensive games have come when the Buckeyes abandoned the passing game. In order for everything to be operating on all cylinders, Ohio State needs to have the threat through the air in addition to on the ground. That means better play from the offensive line, Barrett and OSU’s wide receivers.
Furthermore, the Buckeyes run the ball more efficiently when Barrett doesn’t run as much. The Buckeyes are much better off when those carries are split up between H-back Curtis Samuel and running back Mike Weber.
5. Hitting home runs
In a game between two great teams, big plays matter. The difference could come down to which team is able to break a tackle or gain the separation that leads to a long score.
Ohio State has struggled at times with the deep ball this season. Furthermore, there have been runs that were oh-so-close to going for huge gains. The Buckeyes will have to finish those plays in order to beat Clemson.