All season long, Ohio State has been the team to wear down defenses with the run, supplemented by the veteran passing presence of redshirt junior J.T. Barrett. However, No. 2 Clemson has recently been hitting its stride defending the run, and has a veteran presence that could put the OSU offense to the test.
The Buckeyes, ranked No. 3 and in the College Football Playoff for the second time in the playoff’s three-year existence, are averaging 258.3 yards rushing per game this season. The smashmouth style of redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber and the dynamic ability of junior H-back Curtis Samuel has propelled OSU.
However, Clemson (12-1) is not the kind of defense the Buckeyes are used to this season. Although OSU had some success running the ball late against Michigan, it took well into the third quarter before the run game woke up after just 41 yards in the first half.
The Tigers have given up a little over 132 yards per game on the ground this season, but have limited teams to an average of less than 100 total rushing yards in the last three games. Anchored on the weakside by senior linebacker Ben Boulware, Clemson is a veteran unit that prides themselves in its stifling defense.
Weber, after a disappointing 26 yards on 11 carries against the Wolverines, knows that Boulware is the kind of guy who can give he and the rest of the Buckeyes fits.
“He’s a fly-around guy,” he said. “Good tackler, good hitter. I didn’t know he was the leader of their defense until Coach Alford told me, but after he told me, you could see it. You could see by his body language by how he plays and how he flies around.”
Boulware, who can make plays in the middle of the field as well as on the edges, could be the biggest thorn in the side of Samuel, who depends mostly on outside runs for big gains.
Five of Clemson’s starting defenders are upperclassmen, bringing years of experience to a defense that allows an average of just 19.9 points per game. Although the entire season has been a success as a whole, the Tigers have given up quite a few yards and points to anemic offenses such as Troy and Pittsburgh.
Even with some outlier performances of defensive lapses, OSU coach Urban Meyer said his team must improve from Michigan on the offensive side of the ball. Two weeks ago, he talked about how the Buckeyes will need to work on not just the passing game, but also the rushing attack.
“We’re going to do quite a bit,” Meyer said. “It’s not just passing the ball. We have to protect. We have to do a better job running the ball, too. I think we ran for 200 some yards against our rivals. That’s definitely why we’re going to practice.”
Although size doesn’t mean everything in football, a large defensive front can wreak havoc for an offense’s run game. Weber, a predominantly between-the-tackles runner, has more to worry about than just the play-making ability of Boulware.
Clemson’s defensive line is led by redshirt senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins in the middle. Standing at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, he is a perfect representation of the massive stature of the Tigers’ defensive line.
“Really big guys,” Weber said. “I think their whole defensive line is over 300 pounds. I think they have one guy that’s like 285 or 290. They’re hard to move. Physical. They plug the holes up.”
Even with a stout unit facing him before he takes a snap, Barrett is ready for the challenge.
In fact, the redshirt junior, who received his degree on Sunday, said he will be looking forward to the first contact to get the ball rolling.
“With me, in order to get a little rhythm, or knock the little butterflies you got, run the ball and get hit one time and ‘All right, we’re good,’” he said. “And also, too, just completing a pass, see the ball leave my hands complete to a receiver, I think that’s something else. Either one of those I feel like get me going.”
OSU faces Clemson on Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. in Glendale, Arizona, in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.