Kirk Herbstreit breaks down key matchup in Fiesta Bowl


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Herbstreit says the Tigers will have to get Travis Etienne going.
Herbstreit says the Tigers will have to get Travis Etienne going.

The Clemson versus Ohio State matchup in the Fiesta Bowl is one of the bowl season’s most intriguing and exciting matchups. After all, these might be the two best teams in the country and they get to go head-to-head in a semifinal. According to ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, the matchup to watch is Ohio State’s secondary against the Tigers’ wide receiver corps.

The Fiesta Bowl pits two teams without many weaknesses – Clemson is third in total offense while the Buckeyes are fifth, and Clemson is first in total defense with the Buckeyes a close second. The game might be won by Clemson’s athletic group of wide receivers, who face the Buckeyes’ second-ranked pass defense (behind Clemson).

Ohio State has allowed just seven passing touchdowns all season while picking off 15 passes. Ohio State allows just 148 passing yards per game and Herbstreit – a former Buckeye quarterback – says they have a formidable rotation in the secondary.

“Jeff Okudah is the top corner in college football,” Herbstreit said Saturday. “He is 6-1 and over 200 pounds and has tremendous length. You are going to see Jeffery Okudah, Damon Arnette and Sean Wade, three outstanding corners against Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. They are 6-4 and 6-5. That is a great matchup and is kind of a game within a game, those corners against those receivers from Clemson.”

The Clemson offense spent much of the season going through outstanding running back Travis Etienne, who leads the nation in yards per carry. However, teams began to stack the box against Etienne and dared the Tigers to beat them throwing the ball down the field.

Enter Higgins, who has 52 receptions for 1,082 yards this season. Higgins had just three touchdown receptions through the season’s first eight games, but has ten receiving touchdowns in his last five games, including three each against Wake Forest and Virginia and two against arch-rival South Carolina.

“When teams in the ACC have said, ‘You know what, we can’t let Etienne get going. We have to get some extra guys down in the box.’ Now, you are going to go with a one (safety)-high look and like most quarterbacks in today’s game, they are going to challenge you downfield," Herbstreit said. "You see the length and the accuracy and Tee Higgins is able to go up and make a lot of plays."

However, Herbstreit said a big key for the Tigers will be making sure that Etienne gets his carries and yards – when the junior from Louisiana is on, it usually means good things for the Clemson offense.

“First of all, it starts, I think, with Travis Etienne," Herbstreit said. "As much as (Trevor) Lawrence gets the attention, if you keep two safeties back because you are worried about that vertical passing game, guess what, nine is getting the ball and he is averaging over eight yards per carry. So, Ohio State will have to make sure they are aware of him,” Herbstreit said.

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