X's and O's: Three Keys for the Buckeyes to Beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl

If the Buckeyes can handle these three things, they'll have a great chance to beat the Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl and clinch a spot in the national championship game.
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The 2021 edition of the Allstate Sugar Bowl will feature two of the most successful and dominant head coaches in college football today in Ryan Day and Dabo Swinney. It will also showcase two of the most heralded and productive quarterbacks in recent memory in Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence. 

And perhaps most importantly it’s a rematch of last year’s Fiesta Bowl, a game that saw the Tigers cap a furious rally with 29-23 victory over the Buckeyes to punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff National Championship. 

But to win on Friday and exact a measure of revenge against these same Tigers, the Buckeyes will have to scheme to their strengths and exploit Clemson’s weaknesses.

Here are three game plan X-factors for the Buckeyes that can tip the scales in their favor and help send them to Miami for the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Win with the Pass Rush and Pressure Packages

Clemson has been explosive on offense through the air in 2020, averaging almost 350 yards passing per game. But the tape has shown some struggles by the Tigers’ offensive line in pass protection in terms of matching up to twitchy athletes in space. 

The high-end movement traits of Trevor Lawrence help mask some of these inconsistencies, but I think Ohio State has the personnel in the front seven to get after this unit and pressure Lawrence. DL coach Larry Johnson and DC Kerry Coombs have shown the ability to scheme favorable 1-on-1 matchups and open up rush lanes using a variety of different alignments, fronts, twists / stunts, and pressure packages.

On the edge, the combination of the power from defensive end Jonathon Cooper paired with the twitch and bend of defensive end Zach Harrison could provide problems for the Tiger tackles. Inside, defensive tackles Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett are easy movers that can provide up the middle disruption. And don’t forget about the blitz ability of linebackers Turf Borland and Pete Werner, who can add to the pressure and help turn up the heat on Lawrence and keep him from breaking outside the pocket.

Limit Explosive Plays in Pass Game

It’s not just the front seven for Ohio State that will need to be at their best on Friday. Clemson is loaded with pass catchers that have been highly productive this season, including wide receivers Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell, and E.J. Williams, along with tight end Braden Galloway and running back Travis Etienne. However, the Buckeye secondary has the talent to match. 

Kerry Coombs’ secondary has a high-end combination of athleticism and versatility, which gives him options in mixing both zone (Cover 2, quarters, quarter quarter half) and man coverages. Cornerbacks Shaun Wade, Sevyn Banks, and Marcus Williamson all have shown the length, hips, and feet to match the Tiger receivers in man coverage situations. And safeties Marcus Hooker and Josh Proctor have displayed physicality, range over the top and the ability to match tight ends and running backs in coverage.

This will be the best quarterback the Buckeyes face all year, so it’s imperative that when playing zone, the secondary plays with alignment, assignment, and eye discipline to limit deep ball opportunities - similar to how the Las Vegas Raiders played Patrick Mahomes in the Chiefs only loss this season.

Make the Clemson Defense Play Left-Handed

Based on the tape, the Clemson defense plays a scheme as multiple and creative as there is in college football. Long-time DC Brent Venables throws a variety of different looks at offenses – even and odd fronts, both single-high and 2-deep looks with safeties, twists / stunts, cross dogs, and corner blitzes. He also does a very good job at rotating his safeties post-snap. 

A great example of this is the interception former Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons had in the matchup last year. Simmons pre-snap aligns in the middle of the field as the post safety, showing a single high coverage. Fields, thinking he is getting man coverage based on the alignment of the boundary corner, looks to throw the vertical. However, at the snap Venables changes the look, sending the boundary corner on a blitz while rotating Simmons from his pre-snap position to a half-field alignment – which put him in a position to undercut the vertical and steal one. Venables not only rotated from a single high safety look pre-snap to a two high safety look post-snap, but he changed the coverage from man pre-snap to zone (Cover 2) post-snap. You can see this happen from the tight copy starting at 0:23 in the video below:

This is what the Tigers want to do on defense – muddy their looks and create confusion for quarterbacks going through their progressions. 

However, I think offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and play-caller Ryan Day can counter this by leaning on the run game like they did in the Big Ten Championship Game and getting Clemson to play more defined as a result. Get running backs Trey Sermon and Master Teague III going on outside zone and power with volume and lean on the Clemson defensive line that is talented, but young, with your experienced road graders up front, led by All-American OG Wyatt Davis. That will open up run game opportunities for Justin Fields, who has dynamic movement traits, on both zone concepts where he reads the backside edge player and designed quarterback runs. 

Ryan Day and Dabo Swinney Hold Joint Press Conference, Discuss Final Sugar Bowl Preparations

And then off that, Wilson and Day can scheme up both drop back and play action throws for Fields to talented wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave against a Clemson defense that will now have to play more stationary and defined because of the success and threat of the run game. This will allow Fields to play fast and make decisive, aggressive throws downfield. 

With a game plan that mirrors what Ohio State alum Mike Vrabel is running successfully with the Tennessee Titans, the Buckeyes can take the Tigers out of their defensive comfort zone and dictate play.

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