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Ohio State defensive flexibility sets up great matchup with Clemson stars

Pete Werner-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Pete Werner and the Buckeyes linebackers will be tested against Clemson. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Ohio State defensive flexibility sets up great matchup with Clemson stars

NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State stopped running back Travis Etienne in his tracks last December when Clemson handed him the football.

He ran for less than 40 yards on ten carries.

The Buckeyes did an effective job slowing Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers passing attack, too.

The Silver Bullets held the big-play offense to just under eight yards per passing attempt while keeping every Clemson wide receiver, including NFL second-round pick Tee Higgins, to less than 50 yards each.

It wasn’t traditional offense that ultimately flipped the script on the Buckeyes in last year’s playoff. It was the three catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns by Etienne that hurt the Buckeyes defense the most. It was Trevor Lawrence leading Clemson in rushing, including a game-changing 67-yard touchdown run where he blew past Ohio State defenders untouched.

That’s what changed the direction of last year’s game, and Ohio State can’t let it happen again. If it does, there’s little chance for this year’s rematch to end any different.

“I don’t think anybody stops them, I think you want to try to slow them down,” Buckeyes defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said Tuesday. “You want to try to contain them. You want to try to eliminate those big plays.

“I think the running back is a fantastic player in every phase of the game. He runs the ball inside. He runs the ball outside. He catches the ball out of the backfield. He catches the ball on the perimeter. I think he’s dynamic. Obviously the quarterback run, which shows up at this time of year, is important to their success. That’s what winning teams do.”

Ohio State-Clemson-Trevor Lawrence-College Football Playoff

Trevor Lawrence had a successful day on the ground against Ohio State last year. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“They have a formula. They’ve got talent across the board from the numbers to the numbers. And so if you went into a game and said, we’re going to take this one thing away, they have plenty to beat you somewhere else. And so you have to prepare for all of it, and you have to play a great game for four quarters in order to have a chance at the end.”

Winning teams slow down explosive players often enough to win, and the Buckeyes didn’t that a year ago. This year’s Clemson team isn’t nearly as deep on the outside as last year’s, and the likelihood is that Lawrence and Etienne will take on an even larger role than they did in the last meeting.

Tuf Borland, Justin Hilliard, Pete Werner and the rest of the Ohio State linebackers will be squarely in the spotlight. Baron Browning’s availability is up in the air, but there’s no shortage of experience for the Buckeyes. The question is whether it will be enough.

“I think when you’re going to play teams like this,” Coombs said. “You’ve got to have speed on the field. And you’ve got to figure out a way to get fast guys out there, playing in the right areas.

“Moving Pete [Werner], getting Baron [Browning] on the field in a different capacity, having a kid like Justin Hilliard who can play all the spots, and then that anchor in the middle, Tuf Borland. I think that versatility gives us — it certainly gave us a great chance when guys were out because of COVID. But it gives us flexibility. When you’re going to play teams like this, you’re going to need those kind of flexible players.”

Werner has played the best football of his career. Justin Hilliard was a game-changer against Northwestern. Tuf Borland has been solid in the middle and if Browning can play, his explosive athleticism has been evident in every game he’s played going back to last year’s playoff bout with Clemson.

The Buckeyes are going to need them all.

“Giving up big plays were some of the keys where we lost that game,” Werner said on Tuesday. “We’ve just got to stay focused, disciplined as a defense and not be overly aggressive.”

If the Ohio State defense can do that, the Buckeyes can beat anyone in the country. They’re eager to get the chance and hoping to turn around the perception that they don’t belong in the college football playoff.

“I think our versatility matches up with their versatility,” Werner said. “I think it’s going to be a great matchup.”


Birm is Lettermen Row's Director of Recruiting and the site's primary Ohio State sports photographer. A Toledo, Ohio native, Jeremy has been in similar roles for and and has been covering the Buckeyes for seven years.