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What We Learned as Buckeyes offensive stars prep for Sugar Bowl

Justin Fields-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes
Justin Fields and Ohio State are gearing up to face Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

What We Learned as Buckeyes offensive stars prep for Sugar Bowl

COLUMBUS — Ohio State feels disrespected as it prepares for the Sugar Bowl semifinal — and rightfully so.

The Buckeyes couldn’t crack Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s top 10 in his final Coaches Poll ranking because they have only played six games. They’re currently a 7.5-point underdog to Swinney’s Tigers on the neutral field in New Orleans. And the experts haven’t given the Buckeyes a fair chance to beat Clemson on Friday night.

Don’t worry. Ohio State hears the doubt creeping in from the outside. And so far, that has only fueled the Buckeyes to prepare to beat Clemson, the team that sent them home last season in the semifinal.

“We had a whole winter offseason program dedicated to this game,” All-American guard Wyatt Davis said Monday. “Clearly what we’ve seen all week, and I’m sure what all of you have seen this week, we’re going into this game not respected at all. That adds a lot of motivation.”

After the heartbreaking loss last season, the Buckeyes didn’t need any added motivation to play Clemson. But Swinney seems to be set on giving Ryan Day and Ohio State all the ammunition it needs to be ready to kick off Friday night in the Sugar Bowl.

While the doubt and trash talk has reached the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and has not fallen on deaf ears, the Buckeyes understand the stakes. And they understand none of it matters once the game begins. They have just one thing on their minds.

“Right now, there’s only one goal: Win the game,” Day said. “It doesn’t matter if you win 6‑3. Doesn’t matter if you win 52‑51. Just win the game. I think that has to be the approach, not: ‘We’re going to beat a team by 28 points, are we going to throw for 500 yards and be on the Heisman trophy watch or whatever.’ It’s win the game. If you win the game, you move on. That’s what matters. So I think that’s the focus.”

Day, Davis and other Buckeyes offensive stars met with the media Monday to break down the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. And as always, Lettermen Row is breaking down What We Learned from the loaded conversations with the Big Ten champs.

Focused Justin Fields ready for redemption against Clemson

More than a year after throwing a game-sealing interception, Justin Fields is back in the College Football Playoff with another shot at Clemson.

Fields knows the pseudo-rivalry between he and fellow former-five-star, Georgia-native Trevor Lawrence. He knows what is at stake in the Sugar Bowl, and he knows this game delivers a chance at redemption from last season’s loss to the Tigers.

He isn’t taking this moment lightly.

“For this game, I have been preparing my butt off,” Fields said. “I have not prepared like this the whole season so maybe I played the way I did because God was just trying to tell me, for this game, that I need to lock in and prepare for this game. I am not necessarily mad [about past struggles], but I was mad after the [Northwestern and Indiana game]. But now I am just motivated.”

Ryan Day-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State coach Ryan Day will have to be careful with his offensive signs against Clemson. (Courtesy/Ohio State Dept. of Athletics)

Buckeyes aware, prepared for Clemson defensive sign-stealing

The most intriguing matchup of the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl will certainly feature Ryan Day’s offensive scheme colliding with one of the best defensive minds in football in Brent Venables. The Clemson defensive coordinator is always prepared with exotic blitz and coverage packages to confuse every layer of the offensive game plan, while Day is a tactician on offense.

Day knows what he is up against in calling plays against Venables for the second-straight season. And the Buckeyes are guarding against the sign-stealing nature of Venables defensive game plan.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, and he does a great job calling the game,” Day said. “Seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing in terms of the plays that they’re running each play and seems to call the right defense into that play a lot. And why that is, I don’t really know.

“But I can tell you that he’s been doing it for a long time, and it’s a good challenge.”

Garrett Wilson, receivers happy to have Brian Hartline back

Ohio State had trouble in the passing game against Northwestern and needed to rely on a huge day from running back Trey Sermon to come back and win the conference title.

Part of the struggle through the air was due to the absence of Ohio State’s top downfield weapon, the always reliable Chris Olave. With Olave expected to be back for the Sugar Bowl, the passing game will see a boost.

But the Buckeyes were also without wide receivers coach Brian Hartline against Northwestern. And now back and ready to be on the sideline, he certainly will help make a difference.

“Getting that analysis from the sideline after each play and what he saw versus what I saw is huge,” Garrett Wilson said. “[Graduate assistant] Coach [Keenan Bailey] did a great job filling in, but everyone has their own eyes of the game and sees something differently. So just getting that second opinion from Coach Hart, that’ll be great to have him on the sideline.”

With both Hartline and Olave back, Ohio State should be dangerous in the passing game again.

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Trey Sermon broke Ohio State records in the Big Ten title game. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Trey Sermon hoping for encore from record-setting performance

How can Trey Sermon follow up a record-breaking performance? That’s not something the senior running back is worried about as he heads into the Sugar Bowl semifinal fresh off a school-record 331 yards on the ground in the Big Ten title game.

Although it helped boost his confidence and showed he can be a dominant back when the Buckeyes need him the most, Sermon can’t worry about what happened in the last game. As far as an encore to his incredible game two weeks ago, he’s hoping to just play well.

“Really just play my best game,” Sermon said. “I know that my ability, I’m more than capable of getting the job done. So I don’t need to do anything extra. Just give 100 percent effort and play my best game.”

If Trey Sermon plays his best game, Ohio State has a good chance to take down Clemson for the first time.

Spencer Holbrook

Spencer Holbrook covers Ohio State football and basketball for Lettermen Row. A graduate of Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, he's in his second year covering the Buckeyes. He was previously the sports editor at Ohio's student newspaper, The Post, where he covered Ohio University football and men's basketball.