FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Dabo Swinney was asked Thursday morning if he ever becomes angry on the sidelines.
Wary, Swinney tried to shine it off – “that sounds like a loaded question.” As suspected, it led to an allusion to the last time Clemson faced Ohio State in a bowl.
Funny how much of the conversation leading to Friday night’s Orange Bowl between No. 7 Ohio State and No. 12 Clemson was about the past rather than the future, either the 1978 Gator Bowl and the disturbing sight of coach Woody Hayes punching a Clemson player or the 2012 Orange Bowl with West Virginia, the worst defeat a Clemson team ever suffered (70-33).
If Hayes had been able to chalk it up to a “bad night” as Swinney described Clemson’s game last Orange Bowl appearance, he might not have been fired the next morning. Swinney just changed defensive coordinators.
“We don’t dwell on that,” Swinney said, “but, unfortunately, we don’t forget it, either.”
What he remembers quite fondly, of course, is how Clemson upset LSU in last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, rallying from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, converting a fourth and 16 to extend the final drive and win on a field goal as the game ended.
“Fourth and 16” was the rallying cry as Clemson made a run in the polls with six wins to open this season, bounced back after taking a punch from Florida State then was brought to its knees with a fifth consecutive loss to South Carolina.
Minutes past 8:30 Friday night at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Clemson has an opportunity to get back on its feet and drop another heavyweight.
Several things must happen for Clemson to succeed.
Pace and distance
The teams run similar offensive schemes. Clemson’s advantage might be the pace at which it plays and its proficiency in stretching the field vertically. The Tigers averaged 80 snaps per game, compared with last season’s record 81.7. Buckeyes defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said he couldn’t truly replicate it in practice.
In losing sack specialist Noah Spence to a suspension and with injuries at linebacker and in the secondary, Ohio State might not have the time to make adjustments on the fly if the first option isn’t working. Still, the Buckeyes have first-team All-America linebacker Ryan Shazier, and 6-foot-3 freshman safety Tyvis Miller is their version of Jayron Kearse.
Don’t buy the notion that Northern teams are slower or a balmy South Florida evening would be to Clemson’s advantage. Ohio State and Clemson recruit the same players, and the weather this week has been refreshing for the Buckeyes, who left sub-freezing temperatures and snow.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins will finish their careers as the most prolific pass combo in Clemson history. This season, they’ve teamed for touchdowns of 91 and 96 yards.
Michigan passed for 451 yards and lost to the Buckeyes by one point. Imagine.
Ohio State’s offensive line averages 6-5, 310 pounds, including three first-team all-conference players. In 10 of 25 games under coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State has rushed for at least 300 yards. This season, OSU led the NCAA in fewest offensive three-and-outs and was second to Florida State in percentage of drives ending in touchdowns.
Bigger than any running back on the Clemson roster, Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller is the epitome of a dual threat, twice rushing for 1,000 yards in a season.
Ohio State allowed more than 1,200 passing yards over its final four games, and Fickell is concerned by the potential mismatch with Clemson receivers Martavis Bryant (6-5) and Mike Williams (6-3), not to mention Watkins.
Swinney tried to downplay the potential he and offensive Chad Morris see.
“OK, obviously, if you just look at the statistics, you’d say, yeah, well, they’ve not had the type of year they want defensively in the passing game,” Swinney said. “A lot of it is people can’t run the ball on them.
“Sometimes that stuff can get a little bit skewed.”
Swinney and Morris will want to test the run with Rod McDowell and Boyd. And before he went down early in the LSU game a year ago, Watkins was penciled in for more work.
Hold that Tiger
Until the six turnovers in the South Carolina game, Clemson’s ratio was respectable and within the bounds of what Swinney determined was championship caliber, including the four earlier in the FSU game.
“We talk about turnover margin,” Swinney said. “Just keep winning the margin, or just being right there gives us a chance.
“When we take care of it, we win. When you’re playing top-10 teams, you don’t have as big a margin for error.”
Two years ago here, four turnovers were deadly against West Virginia.
Defensive players say they don’t speak ill of their offensive teammates.
“We can’t control that,” linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “If they turn the ball over, we’ve just got to get the ball back and give them another opportunity.”