In the days and weeks leading to Jan. 1, the focus on Ohio State has been on what’s happening off the field.
With head coach Urban Meyer announcing his retirement immediately following the Rose Bowl and the future of redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins up in the air, the attention has been on anything but the upcoming matchup against No. 9 Washington.
Meyer said his team will focus on silencing the outside storylines until their season is finished.
“We’re here to win a football game. And the best part of doing a bowl experience is to do your very best to go win,” Meyer said. “We try and avoid that at all costs because any distraction other than getting ready to play is not — we’re not going to allow that.”
The Huskies are coming off a 10-3 season and a win against No. 17 Utah to become Pac-12 Champions.
Washington’s offense is led by a pair of seniors in quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Browning is not reaching the heights of his 2016 season that earned him Heisman talks, but is completing 65 percent of his passes, and is up to 2,879 yards with 16 pass touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
What Ohio State, and sophomore safety Brendon White, is focusing on is the run game.
“The passing game’s good but they have three really great running backs who are patient runners, fast runners, hard runners and hard to tackle and will make you miss,” White said. “Our biggest thing for on Tuesday is taking that extra step in tackling and getting them on the ground.”
Gaskin has rushed for 1,147 yards and 10 scores, even with missing two games during the season due to injury. This is the fourth-straight season Gaskin has rushed for more than 1,100 yards, breaking the 1,300-yard plane in his first three years at Washington.
“They really have no weakness, talented across the board,” junior safety Jordan Fuller said. “Really good team, and we definitely have a challenge coming up, and I’m excited for it.”
The Huskies bring a well-rounded offensive attack to the table, but it is their defense that stands out in the matchup.
Washington ranks tied for fifth in scoring defense and are No. 12 in total defense, allowing 15.5 points per game, never allowing more than 30 to any team this season. Ohio State has scored 30 or more points in 10 of its 13 games.
The leaders of the defense are a trio of All-Americans: senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, redshirt sophomore defensive back Byron Murphy and junior defensive back Taylor Rapp.
Burr-Kirven leads the NCAA with 165 tackles, and has two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries on the season.
Rapp and Murphy combine for six interceptions and 18 pass breakups in the secondary, something Haskins is prepared to deal with.
“Tremendous challenge. Definitely see the All-Americans on the defense. Rapp and Murphy are really good players,” Haskins said. “Michigan didn’t really scare us and other teams didn’t really scare us, so we’re not worried about what the verdict is as far as who people think is the best defense in the country because we feel like we’re the best offense in the country.”
Washington’s defense thrives at bending, but not breaking. The Huskies allow the fewest yards per completion in the country, giving up 8.93 yards per catch. Washington’s zone defense has only allowed nine touchdowns through the air all season, No. 4 in the NCAA.
Going up against Washington redshirt senior quarterback Gardner Minshew, the No. 2 quarterback in the NCAA in passing yards to Haskins, the Huskies held him to 152 yards and two interceptions.
Minshew had not been held under 300 passing yards through the first 11 games of the season.
“They really try to keep everything in front of him, it’s an NFL style defense, they don’t give up a lot of big plays,” redshirt senior wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “They’re gonna make you earn all of your yards, so we can’t afford to make mistakes, we gotta have spacing in the pass game, and we gotta get our run game going as well.”
On paper, Washington has the proper defensive style to give Haskins the most trouble.
While Michigan’s top-ranked defense was strong against lower-level quarterbacks, Haskins ended up being able to torch the man-to-man defense and make plenty of plays down the field.
Washington’s zone defense is built to force Haskins to throw short passes, and the experience against one of the other top quarterbacks in the country in Minshew may help prepare the Huskies for Haskins’ immense talent.
On the ground, Washington is even stronger, ranking as the No. 15 rush defense to its No. 21 pass defense, and that could lead to more struggles in the last game sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins will split with redshirt junior running back Mike Weber.
Washington’s defense has the pieces, and the offense is strong enough to make some plays against Ohio State, but it would take a perfect combination of both for the Huskies to pull of the upset.
To put it simply, the Buckeyes just have too much to play for to let that happen. Meyer is done after the Rose Bowl, and Haskins likely is as well, and I expect him to put his full effort towards reaching 5,000 yards on the season. It would take an explosive 420 yards, which he has done three times this year.
Ohio State’s defense has found some rhythm in the past two games, and I don’t think Browning brings enough to the table to fully exploit the weaknesses the Buckeyes still show on that side of the field.
For the Huskies to upset, it would take an impressive shutdown of Haskins, much like they did against Minshew. I don’t see that happening, especially not in Meyer’s final game on the sidelines.
Wyatt Crosher: 35-21 Ohio State
Colin Gay: 38-24 Ohio State
Edward Sutelan: 31-21 Ohio State