Clemson and Ohio State are a pair of teams with a lot to prove in this year’s Orange Bowl after falling short of their national championship dreams, and the relatively even matchup will likely be decided by just a few key factors.
Each team boasts an electric passing game, with quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Braxton Miller among the best in the country at the position.
However, each team has some glaring weaknesses on defense that could spell trouble when they take on these high-powered offenses.
How the Buckeyes defend the pass and how the Tigers defend the run could very well end up determining which team earns the BCS win.
Tajh Boyd vs. Ohio State’s Pass Defense
Boyd has been phenomenal all year long for the Tigers, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
He’s what defines Clemson’s 11th-ranked passing offense, and he could cause major headaches for the Buckeyes’ maligned secondary.
Ohio State is allowing 259.5 yards per game through the air, good for 105th in the nation, and is letting opposing quarterbacks complete 60.5 percent of their passes on average.
The Buckeyes’ pass defense has been in shambles for a while now, and things might only get worse in the Orange Bowl, as ESPN’s Brian Bennett explains.
Ohio State's pass defense was in tatters by the end of the season, giving up 451 yards through the air to Michigan and allowing Michigan State's Connor Cook to throw for 300 yards in the Big Ten title game loss.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is putting true freshman Vonn Bell into the lineup at nickelback and moving Tyvis Powell to starting safety in an attempt to shore up the pass defense. But if Ohio State doesn't show major improvement in the secondary and make up for the possible loss of Roby and Spence, it could mean a huge night for the Clemson stars.
The one area that the Buckeyes might be able to exploit is Clemson’s penchant for turning the ball over in big games.
The Tigers gave the ball away six times to the South Carolina Gamecocks in their 31-17 loss and four times to the Florida State Seminoles in their 51-14 drubbing.
The Gamecocks and Seminoles were able to score six touchdowns off those turnovers, and if Ohio State can replicate that success, the Buckeyes have a chance.
Ohio State has picked off 14 passes this year, 39th in the country. So, they have some hope of intercepting Boyd, and they need to do it frequently.
Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller vs. Clemson’s Run Defense
By contrast, the Achilles’ heel of the Clemson defense appears to be defending the run.
The Tigers are allowing 152.8 rushing yards per game, and the Buckeyes are in pretty good position to take advantage of this deficiency, as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit notes.
Running back Carlos Hyde has been huge for Ohio State’s offense since he returned from his three-game absence at the start of the season, running for 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 10 games.
He’s been the perfect complement to Miller, who has had accuracy issues, but has managed to run for 1,033 yards and 10 scores of his own.
The pair should tax Clemson’s subpar run defense, and Hyde has grand designs on even breaking Ahman Green’s Orange Bowl record for rushing yards.
"Perfect ending for me would be beating 206," Hyde told Cleveland.com. "And a win. That would be the perfect way to go out."
However, it’s not totally inconceivable that the Tigers could slow Ohio State’s running game.
In fact, Michigan State just offered a pretty good game plan of how to do so according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.
When the Spartans got the Buckeyes behind schedule on down-and-distance, it enabled them to get creative with their blitz/spy combinations. In doing so they were able to bring extra pressure in an effort to sack Miller without leaving them vulnerable to him escaping contain and ripping off a long run.
There was a second-quarter, third-and-6 play that perfectly illustrated this strategy, and the Spartans' overall defensive approach. MSU brought a blitzing outside linebacker and a blitzing corner, but also left two defensive backs sitting back in a zone, watching Miller in case he eluded the rushers and broke free. It was a clear sign of MSU's intentions: It was willing to give up a 6- or 7-yard gain and a first down on a short pass, but it was not willing to give Miller room to tuck the ball and break a long run. And since Miller failed to hit his hot read -- tight end Jeff Heuerman, which would have given them a first down -- the gamble to bring pressure paid off, as OSU failed to convert the third-down play.
The Tigers’ defense is surely a long way off from the talented Spartans, but the Big Ten title game proved that Miller and Hyde could be contained effectively.
Both of these teams have incredible talent offensively; the key will be who can make stops on defense.
Each defense has its strengths and weaknesses. It will just be a matter of whether Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney does the better job of exploiting his opponents’ issues.
If neither defense can adjust, this game could quickly turn into a shootout, creating a real Orange Bowl to remember.