SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was all in on a four-star quarterback from Gainesville, Georgia, for the class of 2014. The chips were stacked against him, but it didn’t matter. Meyer had gotten these players before, even if that player had committed to Clemson during his sophomore year of high school.
DeShaun Watson has meant everything to Clemson the past two years. Coming five points shy of a national championship last year, Watson will have to beat the same coach he has respected since the beginning of his high school career, and a close friend in OSU redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett.
The Playstation Fiesta Bowl features two powerhouse programs in No. 3 OSU (11-1) and No. 2 Clemson (12-1), each vying for a chance at the national championship. To get there, OSU doesn’t have to rely on a stellar game from Barrett. Clemson, however, needs their offensive juggernaut to perform at the highest level.
Barrett has been criticized this season for his inconsistent production in the passing game and inability to throw the ball over the top. Clemson safety Jadar Johnson even made a comment this week saying that Barrett isn’t one of the better quarterbacks Clemson has faced.
In his past two games against Michigan State and Michigan, the Wichita Falls native has completed less than 50 percent of his passes and thrown for 210 yards combined with one touchdown and one interception.
But OSU’s identity isn’t through the air. Junior H-back Curtis Samuel, redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber and Barrett supply the offense OSU has needed on the ground to get to this point in the season.
Clemson’s bread and butter has been its passing game. However, when Watson throws multiple interceptions, the Tigers’ look like a vulnerable team. In the one game Clemson lost this year, Watson threw the ball 70 times. Although he had 580 yards passing, his three interceptions, including one in the endzone, left the outcome in question.
OSU has intercepted 19 passes this season and returned seven of those for touchdowns, making that an area of the game where OSU can take advantage. Redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker, who leads the team with six interceptions and three pick-sixes, said that despite Watson’s 15 interceptions, the two-time Heisman finalist is a dangerous player at the top of his game.
“We haven’t really paid attention to how many turnovers he’s had this year because we know he’s still a Heisman-candidate quarterback and one of the better players in college football,” Hooker said. “At any given moment he can go out and make a play for his team.”
OSU’s defense has been the saving grace for a stagnant offense more than a few times this year, most notably against Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. It took until the fourth quarter for Barrett and the offense to get going, and without a defense that produced two interceptions inside Michigan’s 20-yard line, OSU likely wouldn’t be a game away from a shot at the national championship.
Clemson’s offense has weapons all over the field with Watson, tight end Jordan Leggett, wide receivers Mike Williams, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott, and will be the most dynamic offense OSU has faced to date. However, for those players to be effective, Watson has to be on top of his game, especially with an opportunistic secondary that picked off fellow Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield twice.
“It gives you a lot more confidence, I feel like, to know that (the secondary is) behind you,” said Sam Hubbard, OSU redshirt sophomore defensive end. “And just we pressure them, they pick them off. So that’s what we do. It all ties in together.”
Clemson pass rushers Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins on the defensive line, and linebackers Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph could spell trouble for an OSU offensive line that allows over two sacks per game. But the running game has had success against the Clemson front seven in the past. Louisville ran for a whopping 273 yards versus the Tigers, including 162 yards to dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Barrett, like Watson, uses his legs to extend plays and move the chains. But unlike Watson, Barrett’s efficiency running the ball dictates how effective OSU offense can be. Samuel has been the straw that stirs the drink for Meyer’s offense and he doesn’t need Barrett to go above and beyond to have a great impact.
When Samuel averages less than five yards per carry through four quarters, OSU scores an average of 20 points in regulation. If Samuel moves the ball on the ground, the passing game opens up for Barrett against a defense that has allowed over 250 passing yards five times this season.
Clemson running back Wayne Gallman is an integral part to the success of the Tigers’ offense, but there’s no denying Watson’s play dictates the unit’s efficiency.
A turnover-proof game from Watson means that OSU’s offense has to rely on itself to beat the Tigers. But if trends remain the same, OSU’s defense will be a major part to Barrett’s and the offense’s success.