In some ways, there was no possible way that Ohio State’s defense had a chance. We had seen it allow 41 points to Michigan followed by 34 to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, and that was with nearly their full complement of players. Already missing safety Christian Bryant who wasn’t able to return in time for the bowl, the team was without defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Bradley Roby. Sure, there were big plays made by the Buckeye defense, including two interceptions, a safety, and a turnover on downs, but there was not enough pressure to be had, and nobody had an answer for Sammy Watkins. Joey Bosa (5 tackles, 1 sack) played with a gladiator-like effort after injuring and re-injuring his ankle, limping off the field after making plays. It made you wonder how bad Bradley Roby, with his bags packed already for the NFL, and his bone bruise were.
Sammy Watkins came as good or better than advertised and did it all, lining up wide, in the slot, and alongside Boyd in the backfield. He set Clemson and Orange Bowl records with his 16 catches for 227 yards to go with 2 touchdowns. On the first, he burned the freshman safety Vonn Bell after Bell didn’t bump him at the line and let him get deep without help from a second defender. With his second score, it was a fantastic play on a rollout from Boyd where Watkins went up the ladder and caught the ball at its highest point over the top of Doran Grant. As Watkins went in motion repeatedly, it looked like OSU’s defense failed to account for him in several instances, and it was an automatic 8-10 yards every time he possessed the ball. There’s no doubt that Clemson exposed the tackling (or lack thereof) of the Buckeye defense on the boundaries. Watkins showed he’s worthy of a top ten selection in the draft this spring (and maybe even as high as No. 4, wink, wink), and he did it while battling his own leg injury throughout the second half.
A good chunk of the defensive performance goes back to players, sure, but there’s a large element of it that goes to coaching as well. I don’t see how Urban Meyer in his right mind can bring Luke Fickell back to run a defense after the way things played out in the final three games, including this one with all the time in the world to prepare. It was Meyer and staff that chose not to play freshman safety Vonn Bell in a large capacity on defense until the Orange Bowl. That only came after Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown’s embarrassing performance against Michigan State where he was exploited repeatedly. Bell made some big plays in this game, none bigger than an unbelievably athletic one-handed interception of Tajh Boyd in the second quarter as he scrambled toward the end zone that took certain points off the board. He finished third on the team with 7 tackles (all solo) as well. It was also the staff’s decision to keep Cam Burrows on special teams along with Bell and redshirt Eli Apple and Gareon Conley in the secondary as well as Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson in the linebacking corps, all of which could have seen playing time ahead of the likes of Brown, Armani Reeves, Joshua Perry, Camren Williams, and Curtis Grant. The Tigers racked up 576 total yards, including 378 passing yards from Boyd, and Clemson also converted 7-of-13 third downs as most of them were short yardage. I think this defense with the recruits from both 2013 and 2014 getting up to speed along with the return of Bosa, Spence, and Bennett on the defensive line will make this defense light years better next year. However, this year’s product was a disgrace to OSU football, and there needs to be accountability for it from Urban, Fickell, and the players themselves.
Early in this game, given how Clemson scored so fast and Ohio State needed help from penalties and a fake punt conversion to score, Ohio State was teetering on the brink. It was a pass from Braxton Miller to a wide-open Jeff Heuerman on a 57-yard scamper that put Ohio State right back in the fold after falling behind 21-9. Ohio State got the ball back after a turnover on downs and marched right down the field in 57 seconds before the break, highlighted by 2 catches for 39 yards by Philly Brown and capped off by a Braxton Miller 3-yard run, his second of the game. Miller took a shot in the first quarter, and he continued to flex his arm and shoulder throughout the game. With his offensive line playing their worst game all season, Braxton really did put up a valiant effort, throwing for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns while running for 84 yards (when you remove the sacks) to go with 2 more scores. On his touchdown toss to Carlos Hyde in the second half, he took a personal foul from Vic Beasley as he buried his full body weight into him as he landed on the turf.
What ultimately prevented the Buckeyes from outscoring the Tigers was their fourth quarter offensive execution. Carlos Hyde, for the second straight fourth quarter, became an afterthought. Even after Miller was clearly playing heavily injured, the Buckeye offense refused to lean heavily on Hyde late (25 carries, 113 yards, 2 catches, 39 yards, 2 total touchdowns). Hyde last touched the ball on a touchdown reception on a wheel route that left him wide open with 11:35 remaining in the game. For the final two drives, Hyde did not get a single carry. One fourth quarter carry for Hyde after 24 in the first three quarters is certainly inexcusable. Fans are left wondering what could have been if Meyer and Tom Herman had not abandoned the very running game that got them to the place they were.
There were also the late turnovers that did the Buckeyes in. Miller fumbled on a 3rd and 13 in Clemson territory with just over three minutes to go. Boyd inexplicably responded by throwing a pick right to C.J. Barnett with just under 90 seconds to play on a third and long of their own. It gave the Buckeyes one more shot, but Miller on the second play of the drive tried to go over the middle to Philly Brown, didn’t get the ball up enough, and threw it right into the arms of Stephone Anthony to end the comeback effort.
It’s hard to blame one play for a loss in a game like this, but Philly Brown’s muffed punt late in the third quarter comes about as close to it as possible for a play made with so much time left. Ohio State was getting the ball back, up 29-20, late in the third quarter after they had scored on their last 9-play, 5-minute drive. Instead, the turnover gave Clemson a short field, and they scored quickly. Braxton compounded things by firing a pick into double coverage, intended for Brown, on the next drive. Suddenly, Clemson grabbed the lead at 34-29. If anything, this game showed that Braxton has plenty of strides he needs to make as a passer in terms of decision making and accuracy, and I hope he realizes that and comes back for his senior season.
This game had a little bit of everything, two missed PATs, six turnovers, 75 points, over 1000 total yards of offense, and 21 accepted penalties for over 200 yards and a handful more that weren’t. Much of this game was played in disorganized chaos and had a very fevered pace. In the end, it was a combination of momentum, offensive playcalling, and the devil that we knew in Ohio State’s defense that prevented an Orange Bowl win.
(Photo: Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer)