COLUMBUS — There won’t be any need for gimmicks to get fired up at Ohio State.
The score in the Fiesta Bowl did once provide added fuel back during workouts in the winter. The bulletin board could be overflowing with comments from Dabo Swinney if the Buckeyes decide to keep track of every time he’s opened his mouth over the last couple weeks. And even outside of the matchup with Clemson, there is plenty of outside noise from national analysts who for some reason are doubting an undefeated Big Ten champion as worthy of a playing for the College Football Playoff title.
But after everything the Buckeyes have been through since last December, it’s more clear than ever that the program relies on self-motivation and won’t need any reminders about what’s at stake on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl.
“Fresh off of that game [last year], it was right on our minds, and something that when we got back to work and winter workouts, January, February, it was right there for us,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Coming off of that game, we just didn’t get over it in one day. It took time. As we got into spring ball, we started to move forward, and then the quarantine happened. The goal was to get back into the situation.
“We were in the same situation a year ago. And once that game was over, we wanted to get back here.”
The Buckeyes have accomplished that mission, and the next one is to finally get past Clemson and return to the championship game for the first time since winning the national title in 2014. What questions are facing Ohio State as it turns its attention to New Orleans? Lettermen Row is kicking off the Sugar Bowl preparation with Five Questions for the Buckeyes.
Will Justin Fields have any limitations with thumb?
There is no uncertainty about whether Justin Fields will play or not in the Sugar Bowl. All that’s unclear for now is whether the thumb injury he sustained late in the Big Ten championship will impact his passing ability against Clemson when the Buckeyes will absolutely need him at his best.
Fields suggested he would probably get an X-ray on the thumb on Saturday, but the anticipation was that it was just a sprain and a couple days of rest and ice would be enough to get him ready to roll in the Sugar Bowl. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day simply pronounced the superstar “fine” on Sunday as the program gets ready to return to the practice with its focus on the Tigers. But just like the buildup to last year’s meeting, the status of Fields and an injury that isn’t likely to keep him off the field anyway will be in the spotlight.
How many Buckeyes will be cleared to return for Sugar Bowl?
Ohio State clearly isn’t out of the COVID woods quite yet, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise since it has been dealing with positive tests inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for the last four weeks. For the most part, the Buckeyes have done an admirable job containing the spread thanks to the aggressive isolation, daily-testing and social-distancing steps they have taken. Outbreaks like the one that arrived in late November have wiped out other rosters and schedules, but the Buckeyes only wound up needing to cancel one game.
If there are any additional positives, those players will obviously miss the Sugar Bowl even with the Big Ten expected to formally confirm a change to its protocol and lower the 21-day return-to-play rule to 17 across all sports. Those four days could wind up being significant for starters like wide receiver Chris Olave or linebacker Baron Browning, though, and that would be a huge boost for the Buckeyes.
Is Miyan Williams in line for backup role for Ohio State?
Somewhat unexpected opportunities arrived for Miyan Williams in each of the last two games, and the freshman tailback has undoubtedly made the most of them. If the injury concern that limited Master Teague on Saturday in the Big Ten championship lingers at all over the next two weeks, the rise of Williams could be even more critical and could put him in position to be the backup option behind record-breaking rusher Trey Sermon.
Even if Teague is healthy, it’s fair to wonder if Williams might have earned a more prominent role for the Buckeyes with his violent, bowling-ball style. Granted, the sample size is small, but Williams has rushed for 38 yards on his last six carries and offers a different look and tackling target for defenders with his 5-foot-8 frame. Ohio State didn’t exactly past the test of its depth in the backfield last season against Clemson, so it’s certainly worth watching to see what develops with Teague and Williams.
Are Ohio State defensive backs ready for Clemson?
Every unit on the roster wanted to play more games this season. But perhaps no group needed the extra reps quite like the secondary, which was inexperienced coming into the year and never really was able to use a first-choice lineup in any game since October. The season-ending injury for cornerback Cameron Brown was a much bigger blow than might have been anticipated at the time, and the Buckeyes have really been forced to get creative with the personnel due to inconsistencies at safety and slot corner while also still trying to get comfortable with what new defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs wants to execute.
The last couple weeks have obviously shown clear improvement from the Buckeyes, though neither Michigan State nor Northwestern will ever be confused for the challenge Trevor Lawrence presents with Clemson. The pressure is on for the Ohio State secondary.
Will Buckeyes be braced for blitzes?
At this point, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of blitz left that Ohio State hasn’t already faced even in this shortened season. And the Buckeyes also just faced Clemson and its vaunted coordinator Brent Venables again in the Fiesta Bowl last year, so there shouldn’t be a ton of surprises left for the offensive line either way.
Ohio State has been playing at an elite level up front to power the rushing attack, creating truly massive holes for Trey Sermon to set the school’s single-game rushing record on the way to 399 yards on the ground overall for the offense. Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere have also been phenomenal in pass protection on the edge, and for the most part Justin Fields has had plenty of time to operate this season. But if there’s one looming question for the Buckeyes on the offensive line, it’s about their ability to pick up extra pressure. It’s not easy, of course, but that’s the standard at Ohio State — and it will be tested by Clemson.