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Ohio State Needs Best Defensive Effort to Contain Clemson

Defending national champions more explosive than any team OSU played

He's been wearing the colors for only one season, not even one calendar year quite yet in a coaching career that spans longer than four decades, so the scarlet and gray still looks stranger than brown loafers at a black-tie affair on Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

You can tell, though, that OSU loyalties have infiltrated his memory and bent it to the will of the Buckeyes as he prepares his players for the tall task of stopping Clemson's explosive offense Saturday night at the Fiesta Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

"About all I remember from the '07 Fiesta Bowl is the opening kickoff," Mattison said, smiling. "I saw Ginn Jr. run by me and I thought, 'Oh, no.' "

The guess is, Mattison remembers a bit more that Ted Ginn Jr.'s touchdown return to start that BCS national championship game 13 years ago than he's letting on.

But if his recollection really is that foggy, Mattison can glance at his hand and allow the national championship ring Florida won that night at Ohio State's expense refresh his memory.

The Buckeyes couldn't block Gator defensive ends Jarvis Moss or Derrick Harvey that night and the 41-14 Florida win that resulted wasn't the most stunning result of the evening.

The more shocking statistic is that Mattison's defense held Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and OSU's pyrotechnic offense to 82 yards total offense.

It is, all likelihood, the only time in history Buckeye fans covered more ground walking from the parking lot to their seat location than their team gained through four quarters.

Mattison was the architect of the unit that tormented Jim Tressel and denied him a second national title at OSU in a five-year span. but it wasn't the first time Mattison's strategy ruined a football viewing experience for the State of Ohio.

It would be hard to craft a job history more counter to Ohio rooting loyalties than Mattison's, which features two separate stints at Michigan for 13 combined seasons, eight years at Notre Dame, three at Florida and three with the Baltimore Ravens.

Oddly, Mattison wound up at OSU this year only after Urban Meyer stepped aside and Ryan Day took over. Odd, because Mattison worked for Meyer, of course, that night long ago in then-University of Phoenix Stadium, now AllState Stadium, when Harvey and Moss detonated Ohio State's offense like a trick cigar.

The Buckeyes back then were a lot like Clemson is now, with a star quarterback in Smith, a stud tailback in Beanie Wells and an array of outstanding wide receivers like Brian Hartline, Brian Robiskie, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez.

  • The Tigers' Trevor Lawrence won 41 consecutive games in high school and hasn't lost any of the 24 games he's started at Clemson.
  • Tailback Travis Etienne has rushed for 1,658 yards and 1,500 yards the past two seasons.
  • Wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have 21 combined touchdown receptions and 1,800 combined receiving yards.

"What I see is an ability to run the football, first," Mattison said. "Then, an ability to throw the ball very, very well. Receivers that don't drop many passes. And receivers that can run and have size. So you have a pretty good package offensively."

Mattison is not without weapons himself.

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He and co-coordinator Jeff Hafley, who is still on the job but will depart after the Playoff to take over as head coach at Boston College, can throw All-American defensive end Chase Young, All-American cornerback Jeff Okudah and a remaining secondary with at least one other likely first-round pick at the Tigers.

The Buckeyes finished just behind Clemson in total defense, but the two finished first and second in the nation, giving up less than 250 yards per-game.

The Tigers led the nation in fewest points allowed at 10.6 per-game. OSU tied for second at 12.6 per-game.

But Mattison cautions against those numbers creating a false security.

"No team is 100 percent perfect, with no flaws," said. "That's where, as a coach, if you do have something (vulnerable), you have to use scheme to erase that."

In such a monster pairing of competing elite talent, how often do events on game night mesh with what's anticipated from advance scouting?

That depends who you ask.

"I wish I could say, 'That’s exactly what I thought they were going to do,' " Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "Sometimes you get lucky, but sometimes you're not on the right side of it. You (hopefully) have time during the drive to figure it out."

Mattison counts on experience to tell him what's coming, but not the experience of games he's coached from the sideline. Instead, he trusts what he sees before kickoff.

"When you see so much on film, you can't let your feelings get in the way," he said. "You let the film show you. Then you really have to honestly judge what your team is like.

"Don't love them because of who you're with. What kind of players are they? What can they do? You'll go into games sometimes and say, boy, 'I'm worried about this.'

"You have to honestly see what your team is like. Most of the time you can really tell what your strong point is, what their strong point is and how you have to play."

Venables agees with his Ohio State counterpart on that.

"You need to understand yourself and how opponents are going to look at you," Venables said. "That might be as important as anything. Look at your own deficiencies. You better have a long memory about what you’ve put on tape, because they’re looking at it."

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