The Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night matches up third-ranked Ohio State with second-ranked Clemson in a college football playoff semifinal. Last time the teams met, in the 2014 Orange Bowl, Clemson won 40-35.
WOSU's Debbie Holmes talked to sports writer Eric Seger about the challenges facing Ohio State, and why he predicts Clemson to come out on top.
The below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.
Debbie Holmes: Now what should we be looking for then in this game, regarding the offense? Ohio State does have quarterback JT Barrett, and then Clemson has quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was a Heisman candidate. He's very well regarded for his talents on the field.
Eric Seger: Yeah, Deshaun Watson, you know, was runner up in the Heisman this year and finished third last season. So he's one of the premier players in the country, and you can put JT Barrett in that category as well. So, you know, a lot of questions have been discussed and wondered about Ohio State's passing game and their offence in general, kind of leaning on the running game and the legs of JT Barrett instead of the arms.
And I think that in order for Ohio State to have a solid chance in this game, he's going to have to complete passes, whether it just be short, quick passes over the middle, just to get the ball out of his hands, and try to find some receivers that can make some plays, because Clemson's defensive line is excellent and it's very deep and fast and big. And Ohio State's offensive line has had some issues in pass protecting. So you know, Barrett's going to have to make some plays with his arm more than his legs.
With Clemson, I mean, Deshaun Watson's going to be there, he's thrown for a ton of yards and touchdowns in his career. And the thing that I'm watching with him is, you know, can he protect the ball. I think that that's going to be one thing that Ohio State's going to try to do, is force turnovers in order to kind of kind of hang around in this game, because Clemson has a ton of weapons and a ton of NFL prospects on their offense and they're going to be tough to stop.
Debbie Holmes: So I understand you're saying to expect the unexpected in this game. What do you mean by that?
Eric Seger: From the Clemson side of the ball, and defense, Brent Venables is the Broyles Award winner which is given annually to the top assistant coach in the country. And he's Clemson's defensive coordinator and he does a great job of using his personnel and kind of running out these kind of unexpected formations, if you will, and these different blitzes and different coverages that are used to confuse some offenses.
And there is one play that sticks out in my mind where they literally drop all 11 players on defense to defend the pass, in one of the games this season. It didn't work out, the team still was able to complete a pass and stuff like that. But that's kind of the unexpected thing that, you know, you kind of wonder about it, that has made Venables one of the premier assistants in the country.
Debbie Holmes: Now, for Ohio State, besides JT Barrett, who will be the key players?
Eric Seger: Starts and stops with Curtis Samuel, the H-back, the only player in the country with at least 700 receiving yards and 700 rushing yards, which is an amazing statistic in its own right, and he has 16 touchdowns on the season, and he's the most explosive player on their offense. He needs to get the ball a lot, and Ohio State knows that. They've done pretty well to balance out his touches, you know, in terms of equal amount of carries and equal amount of receptions.
So that's going to be a key, is how they use him, whether it's with pre-snap motions to try to create mismatches against a linebacker on the Clemson side of the ball. But he's going to have to, you know, make some plays for Ohio State because their wide receivers have struggled. And Mike Weber is going to have to push the ball plenty, and kind of move the chains, in order to keep Deshaun Watson on the sideline and thus keep Ohio State offense on the field.
Debbie Holmes: How do you think our defenses match up?
Eric Seger: Yeah I think I think Ohio State's defense is very, very good. They have a ton of NFL talent, just like Clemson's often does, which I mentioned before, so I think that it's really going to come down to how close those wide receivers can create separation or if they can at all.
Debbie Holmes: And who do you think is going to be the winner?
Eric Seger: I've already written in print that I'm picking Clemson, so I'm going to stick with that. And I think that they're going to win because it's going to be close the whole way, I think it's going to be a really close game, but I just don't think that Ohio State's offense can score quite enough points to win. So I picked Clemson, 34-31.