Sammy Watkins could be playing his final collegiate game against Ohio State.
Last week’s results
No. 12 Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC) lost to South Carolina 31-17.
No.7 Ohio State (11-1, 8-0 Big 10) lost to Michigan State 34-24 in the Big 10 title game.
Can Clemson finish 2013 on a high and erase the ugly memories from its last Orange Bowl trip?
There’s no avoiding what happened to Clemson the last time it stepped foot in Sun Life Stadium, and to their credit, the Tigers haven’t even tried.
Two years ago, a young Tiger team that featured 63 freshmen and sophomores was thoroughly embarrassed by West Virginia, which applied a 70-33 whipping in the 2012 Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers scored more points than anyone in college football bowl history and handed Clemson its second-worst bowl loss ever.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows his team is far more mature than it was two years ago. As is his nature, he accentuated the positive.
“I told the guys, we were in the locker room after the game a couple years ago, we were very disappointed with the outcome of the game,” he said. “But I said, ‘It’s not going to be 31 years before we’re back in the Orange Bowl. I promise you that. It’s good to have a chance to be back. We’ve got to get a better result. That’s our goal.”
Clemson trailed only 21-17 midway through the second quarter, but the tide turned after West Virginia stripped tailback Andre Ellington at its goal line and ran the fumble back 99-plus yards for a backbreaking score. The Mountaineers led 42-20 at the half.
“When they got that fumble and ran it (99) yards it was just, I looked up, it was 40-something and it isn’t even halftime yet,” junior defensive tackle DeShawn Williams said. “I was like, ‘Dang.’”
Williams says he and his teammates are more mature, but youth doesn’t explain the 2012 meltdown.
“People want to use that as an excuse,” he said. “With that type of atmosphere and the way we’d played that season, we should have known what was going to happen. We can’t use (the excuse) just because we were young.
“We had all the talent on the world on that field. We just didn’t execute. I don’t think it was a young thing. They executed their calls and when something bad happened all hell just broke loose. We couldn’t stop them.”
Clemson is coming off a 31-17 loss to rival South Carolina and a 51-14 loss to BCS title game participant Florida State still stings, too. Beating the Buckeyes, who had their 24-game win streak snapped against Michigan State, would be a meaningful win in a number of ways for Swinney and Co.
Can Clemson contain Braxton Miller?
Clemson’s struggles against mobile quarterbacks came back to the forefront following the South Carolina defeat. Senior Connor Shaw rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, converting multiple third downs with his feet.
That’s a problem since Miller, Ohio State’s star junior quarterback, is one of the best dual-threat signal callers in college football.
Miller has 1,033 rushing yards and 10 rushing scores as well as 1,880 passing yards with 22 touchdowns against five interceptions.
“We have not faced one like this guy,” Swinney said of Miller. “He has great instincts. He is not a quarterback running the ball, he is a legit runner. He can change direction. He is fast and runs away from people. He turns broken plays into positive plays for them. He can scramble and find the guys down the field. He is one of the best players in the nation.”
Williams said he and his defensive teammates are prepared for the challenge Miller presents. They simply must be more patient and avoid the busts that Shaw exploited so ably in Columbia.
Which team will enter 2014 with momentum?
Between Clemson’s South Carolina defeat and Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State, neither team enters Friday with momentum on its side.
The Tigers lost their fifth consecutive game to their archrival, and the Buckeyes suffered their first defeat since 2011, watching a BCS title shot slip through their hands.
Following a 25-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU, the 2012 offseason was far more pleasant than Clemson’s 2011 offseason. A win over Ohio State would give the Tigers their first back-to-back 11-win seasons in program history, and Swinney knows just how much an Orange victory would mean for his team.
“We’ve gotta get over that hump,” Swinney said of winning a BCS bowl game. “That’s one of those things we haven’t done. There’s not a lot of things we haven’t done, but that’s one of them. We want to win a BCS bowl. We want to have back to back 11-win seasons. We want to be a consistent top-10 team. It’s a huge opportunity. You’re playing Ohio State, who represents the best of the best. They’ve been unbelievable. Coach (Urban) Meyer has been great everywhere he’s been. This is a great challenge for us.”
Time: 8 p.m. Friday
Place: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
Radio: Clemson and Ohio State radio networks (regional); ESPN Radio (national)
Spread: Ohio State -5 via VegasInsider.com
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article were obtained directly by the author.
To beat Ohio State, Clemson must be able to pass the ball capably.
Pass the ball
Ohio State has struggled significantly against the pass this season, allowing an average of 259.5 yards per game through the air (105th nationally).
The Buckeyes allowed 340.8 yards per game passing over the last four games, a major concern given the Tigers’ passing prowess. Clemson averages 329.3 passing yards per game, 12th nationally.
Making matters worse, Ohio State’s secondary is banged-up: junior standout corner Bradley Roby is questionable for the game with a knee injury, according to Fox Sports Ohio.
With the Buckeyes’ high-powered rush offense on the other side of the field, Clemson and standout senior quarterback Tajh Boyd must generate consistent passing offense with talented deep threats Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
Stop the rush
Ohio State likes to run, run, run and run some more.
The Buckeyes average 317.5 rushing yards per game. Senior tailback Carlos Hyde averages 140.8 rushing yards per game, and junior quarterback Braxton Miller is nearly as prolific, averaging 93.9 rushing yards per game.
The Buckeyes’ running game is multiple and prolific, but Clemson’s run defense has held up relatively well this season, allowing 152.6 yards per game. The Tigers limited Boston College’s Andre Williams, the Doak Walker Award winner, to 70 yards on 24 carries in a 24-14 win on Oct. 12.
If they can create some semblance of containment against the Buckeyes’ ground game, it bodes well for their chances.
Keep your cool
Two years ago, Clemson lost its fight and composure following Ellington’s ill-timed fumble, and the same held true in October against Florida State.
Following a fumble on its first offensive play and a Boyd fumble inside his own 30 (both converted into FSU touchdowns) Clemson was never competitive in a 51-14 mashing. If something goes wrong early against OSU, the Tigers can’t let it get inside their heads.
Carlos Hyde is one of the nation's top tailbacks, a bruising force in the ground game.
Ground and pound
With Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, Ohio State’s rushing offense is quite impressive.
The Buckeyes average 317.5 rushing yards per game, third-best nationally.
Ohio State would be smart to follow South Carolina’s offensive blueprint: a run-heavy offense that dominates the clock and keeps Clemson’s high-powered offense off the field. The Gamecocks rushed 50 out of 65 offensive plays, and even though they gained just 140 rushing yards, they held the ball for 38:09. If the Buckeyes dominate time of possession in a similar fashion, it will be a recipe for success.
Pressure Tajh Boyd
Boyd averaged 289.4 passing yards per game with 29 passing scores against nine interceptions, but he struggled against the talented defensive lines of Florida State and South Carolina.
Against FSU, Boyd completed just 17-of-37 passes for 156 yards and an interception in a 51-14 defeat, adding a key early fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
Against USC, he completed 19-of-27 passes for 225 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 31-17 defeat, adding a key fumble inside the Gamecocks’ 40.
If Ohio State can pressure Boyd into mistakes and turnovers, the Buckeyes will enjoy similar success.
Keep your chin up
Ohio State suffered its first loss since 2011 to Michigan State in the Big 10 title game, so there are legit questions about the Buckeyes’ motivation.
How will they respond to the Orange Bowl after being one game from a BCS title game appearance?
While at Florida in 2009, OSU coach Urban Meyer watched his team’s hopes for a third BCS title slip away with an SEC title game defeat to Alabama. Meyer was hospitalized after suffering chest pains following the game and later announced a leave of absence. However, he coached the Gators in the Sugar Bowl, and they routed Cincinnati 51-24.
This time around, the biggest “fallout” from the MSU defeat has come from a now-viral photo of a sad Meyer eating pizza outside the Buckeyes’ locker room. Here’s guessing he has learned from his past: will it carry over with his team?
Tajh Boyd has established himself as one of the ACC's most prolific quarterbacks ever.
Senior QB Tajh Boyd
Boyd holds 58 Clemson and ACC single-game, single-season and career records.
He’s the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and is second in passing yardage. This is his final game in a Clemson uniform and final chance to make an impression on NFL scouts before the NFL draft process begins.
Boyd is coming off his third consecutive loss to South Carolina as a starter and would love nothing more than to cement his Clemson legacy with a win over Ohio State. A win would be his 32nd as a starter, tying Rodney Williams’ program record for starting quarterbacks.
Junior WR Sammy Watkins
The Orange Bowl is likely Watkins’ final collegiate game.
He is expected to declare for the NFL draft sometime after the game as he is projected as a top-15 selection in April’s NFL draft.
Watkins has 85 receptions for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, and Ohio State’s secondary (which allows 259.5 yards passing per game) offers a juicy potential final matchup.
Junior LB Stephone Anthony
Anthony lost his job as Clemson’s starting middle linebacker to Spencer Shuey halfway through the 2012 season, but bounced back strong this fall.
He has a team-leading 120 tackles, adding 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He is pondering his collegiate future and a potential NFL jump, and this could be his final Clemson game. To make it special, he’ll have to be aggressive and involved against Ohio State’s rushing attack.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller can make plenty of things happen with his legs.
Junior QB Braxton Miller
Miller is one of the most dynamic players in college football, averaging 263 yards of total offense per game with 169.1 passing and 93.9 rushing.
He is a threat with his legs and his arm, and his legs pose a particular threat to Clemson’s defense. If Miller can make big plays through the air against the Tigers’ stingy secondary, it will open things up for him on the ground even more so.
Senior TB Carlos Hyde
Hyde is one of the nation’s most punishing, physical rushers, averaging 140.8 rushing yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry with 14 rushing touchdowns.
He is fifth nationally in rushing average per game. If Hyde can move the pile consistently against Clemson’s talented front seven, Ohio State’s hopes of a victory will increase dramatically.
Senior WR Corey Brown
Brown is one of the Buckeyes’ top receivers with 55 catches for 655 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 11.9 yards per reception.
Ohio State’s passing game is not highly regarded, but if Brown and Miller can hook up for long plays through the air, it could be a long night for Clemson’s defense.
Dabo Swinney believes his team has learned from its 2012 Orange Bowl debacle.
“These guys, their commitment, consistency, it’s where the best of the best play. They’ve earned it. They deserve to be there. We feel like we were one of those teams that had a chance to be in Pasadena, we came up a little bit short. Ohio State feels like they’re one of those teams that had a chance to be in Pasadena and they came up a little short. So we’ve got two great teams that have an opportunity to play at the Orange Bowl.” – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, on what the Orange Bowl means to Clemson and Ohio State.
“The object is to win as many as you can. We’ve done a great job of that but we get another opportunity go down there and hopefully play better. The first time we went to the ACC title game, I’ll never forget that one. (Georgia Tech) went 86 yards to win the game (in 2009).
I’m not bitter about that but it was a frustrating night. I’ll never forget it. But we got back in ‘11 and got it done. We had a little experience to draw on, those guys knew you don’t get many opportunities like this. And we played a good game, took care of the ball and did the things we need to do to win. That’s what we have to do.” – Swinney, on how the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle can help his team this time around.
“Honestly, for me it's all about just trying to make sure it's the best game that I played this far. It's more so not just for me, but for this program and this university.
“Obviously, a win in a bowl game adds momentum, it adds a fuel to you during the off‑season. So it's important for me personally to go out here and try to get a victory. It's also important for this team and what they're trying to accomplish next year as well. Will people remember this game as the sole game that kind of let me out? I'm not sure. That's kind of for other people to say.” – Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, on how the Orange Bowl will affect his legacy.
Clemson should score enough to make Swinney and fans happy to start 2014.
The Orange Bowl revolves around motivation. Is Ohio State excited to be in south Florida after suffering its first loss in two seasons? And how motivated is Clemson to erase the ugly memories of two years ago?
The Tigers have a strong pass offense, while the Buckeyes have a weak and hobbled pass defense.
Ohio State has a very strong ground game, and the Tigers have been adequate at stopping the run this season, although Braxton Miller’s mobility gives pause, given what South Carolina’s Connor Shaw did to Clemson in late November.
Ultimately, expect a high-scoring game with Clemson making one or two stops more than the Buckeyes do, which will be the difference. Clemson 38, Ohio State 31.