With or without Noah Spence, the Ohio State defense is going to have its work cut out for it against the Clemson Tigers' attack. Spence is growing into a phenomenal pass-rusher, but the key to the Buckeyes stopping Clemson is the pass coverage, not just the pass rush.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that Spence, the Buckeyes' leading sack and tackle-for-loss player, did not make the team flight to Miami, as he dealt with personal issues. Jamal Marcus, a sophomore who has seen quality playing time behind Spence, will likely fill in should Spence not make it to Florida to participate in the Orange Bowl.
Marcus, according to 247 Sports, was a 4-star recruit when he came out of Hillside High School in Durham, NC. The backup Leo, a hybrid linebacker-defensive end player, is long on talent and should be sound in Spence's stead.
However, with Spence or with Marcus, the Buckeyes have to improve upon something that has been a bugaboo for the team all season long: defending the short and intermediate zones in pass coverage. Stopping Clemson takes a combination of disrupting timing through press coverage on the wide receivers and pattern matching to discourage quarterback Tajh Boyd from making the quick, easy throw.
Neither of those aspects have been a strong suit for the Buckeyes defense in 2013.
Getting pressure on Boyd is key; in the two losses this season, the Tigers have surrendered nine sacks. However, all sacks are not created equal, and in sacking Boyd, both Florida State and South Carolina did more than simply "bring pressure" to give the quarterback trouble.
Chad Morris, the offensive coordinator, has built this offense to eat up pressure. It has quick reads and hot routes, and it's predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. Bringing pressure creates quick reads, and Boyd is trained to hit those voids to exploit teams that try to use the blitz to beat Clemson.
To be successful, teams have to make Boyd hold on to the ball longer than he wants to in passing situations. As you can see here, with the Timmy Jernigan sack, Boyd gets set up but has nothing down the field. That allows the Seminoles' pressure to get to the quarterback and get the sack.
Spence would certainly be an addition to the second part of the equation. Yet, the first part, tight coverage to make Boyd hold on to the ball, has to happen before Spence, Marcus or the rest of the Buckeyes' front can go make plays.
That means guys like Bradley Roby, who is still battling a knee injury as Fox Sports reported, have to perform better than they have most of the season. As Your Best 11 pointed out before the Big Ten Championship, the Buckeyes have issues relating to routes. The team gets to its drops, but they don't match patterns or deny throws and against Clemson, that has to be the prime directive.
The Buckeyes' top pass-rusher has been less of a factor in pass coverage when asked to move away from the line in 2013. Because he is not a press man corner, a safety who can deny the slant or a linebacker who walls off the interior well, his potential absence is notable but not a death knell.
The eyes of the nation will be on the Buckeyes and with, or without Noah Spence, the pass coverage has to show up in a big way for Urban Meyer's team to get win No. 13.