It doesn’t take a football guru to explain why Clemson defeated Ohio State 31-0 in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers were the better team Saturday night across the board, and their experience and better game plan/execution snowballed into a blowout that was unprecedented in the Urban Meyer era in Columbus.
However, many experts did see this loss as a possibility because of the flaws that revealed themselves during Big Ten play in October. Indeed, this is the second time in four seasons a deeply flawed unit on the Buckeyes has been thoroughly exposed and leveraged by Clemson in a bowl game: the Orange Bowl following 2013 season and this 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
In 2013, it was the defense that got gashed by the Tigers a few weeks after Michigan State took advantage of similar issues to win the Big Ten Championship. This year, it was the offense that could not execute against Clemson following struggles at the end of the season against MSU (once again) and Michigan.
Just like 2013, the Buckeyes were not ready for prime time and were not one of the best teams in college football, despite being on the cusp of the BCS Championship and the CFP Final.
However, the silver lining is that a loss to Clemson once again may reveal to the Ohio State coaching staff the right way to move forward and leverage more talent and experience in 2017 to be one of the true national title contenders…just like what happened in 2014.
Let’s start back at that 2013 loss. Before the Big Ten Championship game that year, OSU had won 24 consecutive games to start Urban Meyer’s tenure. Unfortunately, the Big Ten conference was not very good across the board then. That allowed the Buckeyes to play soft/zone pass coverage in the secondary and get away with it for a long time, despite having some NFL-level talent like Bradley Roby on the roster.
Sometimes the Buckeyes got lucky to survive against good quarterbacks and receivers. Connor Cook of the Spartans and Tajh Boyd of Clemson were more than capable of exposing the deep flaws in the defensive game plan, thanks also to those teams’ quality offensive lines.
The numbers spoke for themselves: MSU scored 34 points thanks to Cook throwing 24-for-40 for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns. Clemson took it to the next level in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers scored 40 points thanks to Boyd throwing 31-for-40 for 378 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Urban Meyer could not ignore those deficiencies, and changes were made quickly.
Everett Withers moved on from his co-defensive coordinator duties and Chris Ash came in to share the duties with Luke Fickell. A different, more aggressive approach was also installed, as Meyer wanted his defense to play press man-to-man coverage like the Spartans were using effectively against him.
That put some amazing recruits in position to become a shut down defense in 2014 and beyond, while also elevating many safeties, cornerbacks, and linebackers to high NFL draft status: Doran Grant (4th Round CB in 2015), Eli Apple (1st Round CB in 2016), Darron Lee (1st Round LB in 2016), and Vonn Bell (2nd Round S in 2016). Even with all that talent drain over the past two years, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, and Raekwon McMillan are part of the next batch ready for 2017 and beyond.
The elite players were there all along, but the game plan and scheme were not. That changed thanks to the defensive deficiencies revealed by Clemson in 2013 and fixed the following year.
The Buckeyes did not surrender passing numbers like the 2013 MSU and Clemson games on a regular basis anymore, or hardly at all. Only several teams were able to eclipse 300 passing yards against the Buckeyes (Cincinnati, MSU, Oregon in 2014; Michigan in 2015; nobody in 2016), and half of those who did could not run the ball at all.
Indeed, it’s easy to see that Ohio State’s defense carried this team through the Big Ten season to survive long enough to make the playoff. The defense generated 21 interceptions and plenty of red zone stops to keep the Buckeyes in close games. Without heroic efforts from the defense, OSU does not win games against Northwestern, Michigan State, and Michigan. Although statistically not as good, the Wisconsin and Oklahoma victories were also keyed at times by the defense.
The Ohio State defense, even with replacing 8 starters from a year ago, was quickly championship-worthy again. Make no mistake: Ohio State’s defense was one of the best two or three defenses in the country this year, despite all that youth.
Instead, the rest of the team is what failed in the toughest situations against Penn State, at times against MSU and Michigan, and against Clemson. The defense was not the problem this year, unlike what plagued the Buckeyes three years ago.
So let’s play a similar string forward to what happened this week and in the 2016 season, this time on the offensive side of the ball. Can Urban Meyer and the offense learn from this performance and improve to become championship-worthy?
Offense always starts with how the offensive line performs, and the 2016 Buckeyes replaced everyone except senior Pat Elflein and junior Billy Price. Although Meyer and his staff have brought in great recruiting classes, one area where the team was incredibly thin in depth was offensive line.
Thus, the Buckeyes hoped for a stopgap measure in junior college transfer Malcolm Pridgeon to come in and play one of the open tackle positions. That plan derailed when Pridgeon was injured and lost for the season with a knee injury. With Pridgeon gone and not much significant development from the sophomores and juniors on the team, that forced OSU to start true freshman Michael Jordan at left guard and true sophomore Isaiah Prince at right tackle.
There is simply no excuse for a team that recruits this well to have that much unproven youth starting every game on the front line. When push came to shove against better competition, Prince and sometimes Jordan proved to not be ready to adequately run block or pass protect.
This lack of depth and experience became a problem against Wisconsin and Penn State, where the Buckeyes failed to gain 200 rushing yards despite being heavily slanted that direction in play calling. Although Ohio State bounced back to rush for over 200 yards against each other opponent until the bowl game, the wheels fell off against Clemson with only 88 rushing yards.
Against the Nittany Lions, Ohio State surrendered 6 sacks as Prince’s struggles continued at the right edge of the line. Michigan continued this trend, racking up 8 sacks in The Game. To counter this, the Buckeyes planned to throw the ball quickly against Clemson to avoid dealing with a lack of pass protection.
While that game plan resulted in only 3 sacks for Clemson, it also forced J.T. Barrett to throw a lot of swing passes and lateral throws. The Tigers were athletic enough and speedy enough to cover those and make most of those plays go for losses, so the lack of an effective pass protection wrecked the offensive game plan from the start for the Buckeyes.
Add to that the first significant injury on the line this year happened to Michael Jordan in the first quarter. His backup Demetrius Knox was not ready to go and it showed with OSU facing the best interior defensive linemen it had faced all season. Jordan played as much as he could hurt, but his effectiveness was limited and that affected the play calling as well.
If Ohio State had suffered injuries at this position earlier in the season, there’s almost no doubt that the team would have suffered another loss and missed the playoff. When that happened in the playoff, it might as well have been game over.
That cannot happen on a team with talented offensive line coaching available like Ed Warinner (who is co-offensive coordinator, but still).
This is the first problem that must be fixed for 2017.
The offensive play calling stagnated over the past two seasons following Tom Herman’s departure from the staff because the passing game slowly became less and less of a factor. Anytime the wind was blowing or precipitation was in the sky, J.T. Barrett struggled to get anything serious going, and particularly in the long passing game.
Unlike the offensive line, there were names on the depth chart running three-deep at receiver and tight end (no returning starters). Despite this, the passing game could not get in sync all season.
Sometimes it was J.T. Barrett throwing inaccurate balls, especially on deep throws. Other times it was J.T. Barrett refusing to throw into tight windows to avoid making mistakes. Even when the ball was thrown well, Ohio State was prone to more drops than average.
That latter problem was a big concern against Clemson, as three different receivers dropped FIVE third-down passes that would have picked up first downs or touchdowns. Drops cannot be tolerated, and yet, Ohio State could not find anybody outside Noah Brown in the Oklahoma game to catch the ball consistently.
That led to Curtis Samuel being the only good receiving option and the better running option as well at hybrid back. That is not a recipe for success, as Michigan and Clemson keyed on Samuel and kept him contained. Ohio State couldn’t beat the better competition with anything or anyone else.
Against Michigan State, Michigan, and Clemson, the Buckeyes could not get past 127 passing yards. The only opponent in that stretch that gave up a passing touchdown was MSU.
The team was totally one-dimensional, just like at the end of 2015 when Ezekiel Elliott and Barrett ran basically a triple-option offense to beat Michigan and Notre Dame at the end of the year.
Ironically, one of Clemson’s potential weaknesses was pass defense. It showed when Barrett threw a couple of consecutive deep balls late in the game and drew easy pass interference penalties. That was one of those drives ended by a dropped pass though, and the same problems cropped up once again.
The passing game is the second problem to fix for 2017.
The other major deficiency of the Ohio State offense was play calling, which has not been really effective since Tom Herman’s departure. The combination of Tim Beck and Ed Warinner at offensive coordinator struggled with a loaded offense in 2015, but some chalked that up to a quarterback controversy between Cardale Jones and Barrett.
It should have been no surprise that without those great weapons in 2016, these two co-coordinators would have even greater difficulties making a reliable game plan on offense. Every week it seemed that one of the most effective weapons on the offense (Curtis Samuel and HB Mike Weber) would be totally ignored.
The team regressed in effectiveness as the season wore on, which is not something that should ever happen to a championship-level team.
Thus, step one will likely be a change in philosophy and a shake up on the offensive staff. Just like with Everett Withers in 2013, it will be difficult to justify keeping both Beck and Warinner in the leadership roles.
One would assume with the offensive line being a critical need moving forward, Warinner and his replacement as line coach Greg Studrawa need to be retained. That means do not be surprised if someone replaced Tim Beck to add a different approach to the offense and the passing game.
Also, it may be time to move on from Zach Smith, the wide receivers coach. While effective in recruiting, Smith has not developed these receivers well based on the results on the field.
The approach needs to be freshened up. Meyer does not need a genius like Herman, as he has a great offensive mind himself. He just needs an innovative thinker and one would imagine he can find one or two in his network of friends that has led to hires like Larry Johnson and Greg Schiano previously. Who knows, maybe Chip Kelly will make his way to Columbus now…?
Change is painful, but Clemson forced Meyer’s hand to do so in 2013. Ohio State changed its defense and immediately won a title.
Another loss to Clemson and the drive to actually be championship-level across all 9 units of the football team now must turn to improving the offense across the board. That part of the team was not good enough to be much better than 9-3 this season even with all the recruited talent, but the defense carried the team to the playoff (just like the offense carried the 2013 team to the cusp of a Big Ten championship and BCS Championship appearance).
If OSU and Meyer leverages this loss to significant changes that make the Buckeyes a true title contender with a solid offense in 2017, Clemson should really be sent a gift basket for motivating the Buckeyes to improve and be title-worthy.
The defense was good enough in 2016 and should remain so in 2017 to win a national championship. Now the offense (and to a lesser extent, the special teams) must rise to that level for Ohio State to reach the pinnacle where Clemson and Alabama have resided alone since 2014.
Time will tell if the offense can be fixed like the defense was. You can’t have much better than Urban Meyer at the helm, so don’t be surprised if all those critical flaws with the 2016 team disappear in a juggernaut of 2017.