SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ohio State’s defense starts with turnovers, because it has made a habit of starting with turnovers. Each practice begins with what defensive coordinator Greg Schiano calls a takeaway circuit. There are rehearsals of strip sacks. Players run in pursuit of the opposition and punch the ball out. Pass-rushers match the quarterback’s hand when he’s attempting a throw to disrupt the motion or get a tip or both. If the ball hits the turf, the Buckeyes dive after it, then are sure to utilize the proper technique to secure it. Being sound and stifling in all areas is not sufficient. Anybody can do that.
“If you’re taking the ball away,” linebacker Raekwon McMillan said, “you’re changing the game.”
It is not enough, though, to get Clemson to change anything. No part of the Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal will be more combustible than the Tigers’ bold offense challenging the Buckeyes’ defensive vultures. One side is piloted by a Heisman Trophy finalist who totes an eyebrow-raising interception total and the other side comprises players who picked off 19 passes and set a school record by returning seven of them to the end zone. The most consequential point of attack Saturday will be the air space near the hands of Clemson receivers and Ohio State defensive backs, when throws from Deshaun Watson arrive in the vicinity.
Neither side will compromise its identity at this stage, so a berth in the national title game may be up for grabs in a very literal sense. “The whole offense is going to be the same,” Watson said. “You can’t go into a game thinking, ‘This player is going to control how we play offense.’ Protecting the ball—that’s what we always say regardless of if that defense is very good at creating turnovers or not.”
Stoked by Ohio State’s penchant for shutting windows in the passing game—the Buckeyes lead the nation in pass efficiency defense (91.43)—scrutiny of Watson’s 15 interceptions this year recommenced in a hotel ballroom on Wednesday morning. Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott guessed “at least three to four” of the picks were tipped by receivers who ought to have caught the ball, while lauding Watson’s meticulous approach. “He rewrites his notes,” Elliott said. The offense’s fortunes essentially ride on Watson’s attention to detail translating to informed evaluation of risk and reward on each throw.
“They disguise their looks probably as well as anybody that we've ever played, where pre-snap it looks the same, but on the snap they're changing into something else,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “It really puts a lot of pressure on your quarterback to be able to make those decisions quickly. And also the wide receivers have to be tied in. Because at the beginning of the snap the coverage looks the same just about on every play, but whenever the ball is snapped, there's about four or five different coverages that they can get to right as the ball's snapped.”
Clemson has no intention of limiting Watson’s freedom to take chances, so its star quarterback will deal with Ohio State defenders who deftly drop into passing lanes he didn’t expect, often seven at a time, and take away multiple options. “We challenge our guys to make competitive plays,” Elliott said. “You don’t want to scale [Watson] back at all, because that’s what makes him special. He gets a lot of slack because of some of the interceptions, but we’re an aggressive offense. We’re going to throw the ball down the field and we’re going to throw a lot of 50-50 balls and defenses have made some good plays. But I think he’s playing better football than he did last year.”
Watson’s targets, essentially, have to win far more than half the time. The challenge is doing so against linebackers who can run and cover, perimeter defenders that are far from passive—“The corners play the ball like receivers,” Tigers wideout Mike Williams said—and one marauding safety whose range and ball-hawking compares, in Schiano’s estimation, to former All-Pro Ed Reed.
In his first season as a starter, junior Malik Hooker has three of the Buckeyes’ seven interception returns for a score. “You really want a safety to go hash to hash in Cover 1,” Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said of Hooker, “but he’s pretty fast, and he can cover pretty much all of it.” Schiano said the plan is to get Hooker into zone coverages as often as possible to take advantage of his ability to monitor the field, and Watson has at times scuffled against zone looks this year. It’s a high-leverage pressure point, though Hooker shrugged off the idea that it’s an advantage.
“A lot of teams played a lot of zone and he couldn’t read the whole defense, but you can’t pay any mind to something like that with a quarterback like him, that’s capable of getting back into the lab and fixing what he messed up on,” Hooker said. “Just go out there and do your job. Don’t worry about having interceptions. That’s not really who he is.”
Forcing mistakes is in the fabric of Ohio State’s 2016 defense, though. Hooker assessed Watson’s arm and his deep receiving corps and arrived at one conclusion. “For the secondary,” he said, “it makes us feel like the game is going to fall on us.” It’s actually going to fall on which side can ensure the ball falls into its hands. The Buckeyes will attempt to disrupt a Heisman finalist and pursue every throw like it’s theirs to catch. “If he throws it and it’s a little bit off, man, we’re taking it to the house,” McMillan said.
Clemson, nevertheless, will take its chances.
“It’s just doing what we do,” Watson said. “Having that intensity each and every play to get the job done.”