The Ohio State Buckeyes, and specifically Coach Urban Meyer, are known for their potent rushing attacks.
Ezekiel Elliot, the leading rusher in the NFL in his rookie season, was selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL draft after two stellar campaigns for Ohio State under Meyer’s stewardship. And Percy Harvin, Chris Rainey and Tim Tebow were dynamic rushing threats during Meyer’s time at Florida. This year is no different with Ohio State producing better than 258 yards per game this season, ninth overall.
The Buckeyes backfield features Mike Weber, who rushed for 1,072 yards with nine touchdowns this season and dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett, with 847 yards and nine touchdowns rushing in 2016. But it is the team’s other running back, Curtis Samuel, who could give Clemson’s defense the most trouble.
“He’s everywhere,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney told reporters on Tuesday. “They use him a lot like we used Sammy Watkins. He’s got explosiveness. They’ll put him in the backfield more than we put Sammy in the backfield. He’s a dynamic player.”
Samuel is arguably the most talented athlete Clemson has faced all season because of his ability to line up all over the field — producing in the slot as a receiver or as a running back out of the backfield. The former track star from Brooklyn, N.Y., is leading the Buckeyes with 65 catches for 822 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding 91 carries for 704 yards and eight touchdowns. Samuel is so good, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware — a member of this year’s all-ACC first team — doesn’t want anything to do with him.
“They’re probably not going to line me up on Curtis Samuel, at least I hope not,” Boulware said. “I would not like to cover him. That’s not really part of our game plan to put (linebackers) on him. He’s a freak. I don’t want to cover him.”
Ohio State’s rushing attack was No. 2 in the country per S&P+, which looks at efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers, and fourth in the nation with 3.51 yards per carry on standard downs (first down, second and seven or fewer, third and four or fewer, fourth and four or fewer). The Buckeyes were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just 12.6 percent of the time. Only the offensive lines of Washington State (11.5 percent) and Air Force (12.2 percent) were better at creating space. No team was better than Ohio State at converting runs on third or fourth down, two yards or fewer to go, into first downs or touchdowns (87.3 percent).
This strong rushing attack helps Meyer slow down the pace and control the clock, forcing the opponent’s defense to make plays if it wants the ball back — something Clemson has shown it can do even against some of the better rushing teams in college football.
In the opener against Auburn, Clemson held the eventual sixth-best rushing team in the country (278.5 yards per game) to 87 yards on the ground. It held Georgia Tech, the 10th-best rushing team, to 95 yards a few weeks later.
Overall, the Tigers ranked 26th of 124 teams for fewest rushing yards allowed per game against Power 5 conference teams (131.4) and stopped one of every five rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage (39th nationally) against all opponents. On third down, Clemson allowed just eight yards on 72 carries all season.
Its defensive front created a tackle for loss, defended a pass or forced a fumble on 13.3 percent of defensive plays, the seventh-highest rate in the country. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, an all-American this year as a sophomore, had 52 tackles with a team-leading 12 for a loss.
Even Meyer says this Clemson defense is capable of making big plays at any point during the game.
“There’s three different defenses we’re going to face. They’re very game plan-specific,” Meyer said of Clemson. “They’re very multiple, and they’re very unorthodox about what it’s called. I’m glad we have this much time so we can spend a lot of time on those multiple defensive looks.”
And if Wilkins and the rest of the Tigers defense can take away Ohio State’s running game, the Buckeyes offense becomes much less formidable.
Ohio State scored 33 of their 59 offensive touchdowns on the ground and its passing game produced 221.2 yards per game, ranking it 78th in the country. Barrett had five games this season in which he passed for fewer than 152 yards and two of those games didn’t even break the 100-yard mark. Since 2000, teams are 84-102 in bowl games in which they fail to pass for 150 or more yards.
If the Buckeyes fall behind earlyon because they can’t gain yardage on the ground, Clemson’s offense (40.2 points per game, No. 14 in the country) can start to move the ball down the field and put the game out of reach.