The Clemson Tigers’ 29-23 victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl will go down as one of the greatest College Football Playoff games of all time. Thus, there’s a whole lot to unpack from Saturday night’s action. Throughout the night, there was a whole lot of good, bad, and just downright ugly. We’ll break it all down here in this week’s edition of Paws Up, Paws Down.
Paws Up: Trevor Lawrence’s running ability
All season long, college football fans have heard about the elite passing ability of Trevor Lawrence. While that was certainly on display on Saturday, the story of the night was Lawrence’s running ability. Tiger fans have seen Lawrence make plays with his legs all season long, but it wasn’t until Saturday night that he put it on display for the whole nation. One of the most exciting plays in recent college football history was Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown dash late in the second quarter. Though people scoffed when Head Coach Dabo Swinney said that Lawrence may be faster than Clemson-legend Desahun Watson, they may be reconsidering after what they saw against the Buckeyes.
Moving forward, LSU will certainly have to make a game plan for Lawrence’s ability to run. Lawrence’s legs have been Clemson’s best-kept secret all season long, but now that the cat is out of the bag, LSU will have to find a way to stop it. The newfound weapon at Lawrence’s disposal will only add to the Lawrence versus Joe Burrow storyline that will surely dominate conversations ahead of the National Championship.
Paws Down: Performance in the trenches
All season long, the Tigers have had their way on the offensive and defensive lines. The Tigers have been able to gash opponents on runs up the middle offensively while creating penetration and tackles for loss defensively. For most of the game against the Buckeyes, the Tigers were on the receiving end of these plays. Travis Etienne managed just 36 yards on ten carries compared to 174 yards on 18 carries for Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. The interior of the Ohio State offensive and defensive lines largely had their way against the Tigers. While Jackson Carman did an excellent job of neutralizing Heisman-finalist Chase Young, the Tigers were unable to make many holes up the middle for Etienne.
Looking ahead to the matchup with LSU, Clemson will likely have more success against the LSU defensive line compared to that of Ohio State. LSU’s offensive line won the Joe Moore award for the nation’s top unit, however, meaning that Clemson defense will likely face an even bigger challenge in New Orleans. LSU running back Clyde-Edwards Helaire, though dealing with an injury, is an elite player capable of dominating a defense. Additionally, if Burrow has time to throw consistently, there will be no stopping the LSU offense. Brent Venables and the Clemson defensive coaches will need to find ways to get players into the backfield if they want to have any chance of stopping the Bayou Bengals.
Paws Up: Will Spiers’ career day
Despite his consistent appearance in the Paws Down section of these articles, Spiers picked a great time to have a career day. On seven punts, Spiers averaged 44.9 yards including three punts of over 50 yards. Additionally, Spiers pinned the Buckeyes inside the 20-yard line five times. In a game where the Tigers found themselves punting often, especially early on, winning the field-position battle was key. The Tiger defense managed to hold the Buckeyes to three field goals on the night, but you have to wonder if that would have been the case if Spiers hadn’t pinned them deep each time.
One of the most influential plays of the night was a 15-yard roughing the punter penalty on the Buckeyes. After starting a drive on their own one-yard line, the Tigers were forced to punt deep in their own territory. On the punt, Spiers absorbed a big hit, giving the Tigers a first down. Later in the drive, Clemson scored the touchdown that gave them a 21-16 lead.
Paws Down: Getting out-coached
For the first time perhaps ever, there were moments in the game against Ohio State where it seemed like Swinney and Venables were getting out-coached by Head Coach Ryan Day and the Buckeye staff. Most notably, Fields and the offense took advantage of a last-second play change by Venables, snapping the ball and diving forward for a first down as the Tiger defense was looking toward the sideline. Later in the game, the Tigers were flagged for 12-men on the field as they were unable to keep up with the tempo of the Ohio State offense. These coaching failures seemed to come to light when the Buckeyes attacked the Tigers with a fast-paced offense.
Though the Tigers prevailed in the contest, Ohio State exposed some major weaknesses that will likely be attacked by LSU. Swinney and his staff need to make sure they correct these weaknesses if they want to stand a chance against LSU. Ed Orgeron’s staff, which includes the passing game coordinator Joe Brady, is an innovative and creative bunch that will burn Clemson if they fail to improve against the high-tempo offense.
Paws Up: Red Zone defense
The difference in Saturday night’s game was Clemson’s ability to stop the Ohio State offense in the red zone. Coming into the game, the Buckeyes scored a touchdown on 82 percent of their redzone possessions. Against the Tigers, the Buckeyes went 0-3. The Buckeyes also committed the game-sealing turnover on the Clemson 23-yard line.
Though the Tigers gave up more yards than they have all season, they still managed to hold the juggernaut Buckeye offense to 23 points -- their fewest of the season. Looking ahead to LSU, the Tigers will likely have to rely on a similar bend-don’t-break approach. There is simply no way to stop Burrow, Edwards-Helaire and the plethora of talented LSU receivers entirely, but Clemson will need to find ways to make stops when it matters most.
Paws Down: Blaming the officiating
One of the most common complaints of any team or fan base after a close loss is officiating. Throughout the course of the game, there were a few close calls that Ohio State fans felt went against their team. Most notably, the targeting call on Shaun Wade and the reversed Justyn Ross fumble recovery were major talking points. In his halftime interview, Day spent most of his time alluding to the targeting call that he didn’t agree with. In post-game interviews, he and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith continued to allude to the officiating as the reason for the loss.
In a game as close as this one, officiating has the ability to swing momentum from one side to another. Very rarely, however, does officiating cost a team a game. This game was no different. Ohio State had every opportunity to win the game, but at the end of the day, it was their own mistakes that cost them. Blaming the outcome on officiating detracts from what a spectacular game it was, and the accomplishment that Clemson achieved. Perhaps Ohio State’s biggest downfall on Saturday night was their inability to put the tough calls behind them.