Ohio State went into last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson determined to stop running back Travis Etienne.
The number one goal for the Buckeye defense each week is to stop the run, and it was no different against the Tigers a year ago. Etienne entered the game having rushed for 1,500 yards in 13 games. He was averaging 8.2 yards per carry and had scored 17 touchdowns on the ground.
The Ohio State defense held Etienne to a season-low 36 yards on 10 carries, but it was quarterback Trevor Lawrence who did the most damage on the ground in the Tigers’ 29-23 win. Keeping it on the read option was instrumental in Lawrence rushing for a career-high 107 yards on 16 attempts. Taking away the three sacks and his numbers were actually 132 yards rushing on 13 attempts.
As Clemson offensive lineman Cade Stewart said this week, when it comes to Lawrence running the ball, looks can be deceiving.
“I mean, you’ve got to honor him,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re running or throwing the ball, you’ve got to honor the guy because he’ll pull it and get 10-15 yards no problem. He may be 6-6 but the dude can fly and so that’s the kind of thing that he brings to the table. He can hurt you any way you want and that’s what makes him such a great football player.”
Lawrence’s ability didn’t necessarily catch the Ohio State defense off guard last year, but the execution was definitely effective.
“In terms of Lawrence’s ability to run, he’s very athletic. When they need him to run, they’re smart about how they do it,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said this week. “And, no, it didn’t really surprise me all that much. I know that he had a great day against us and opened up and ran away from some of our guys. That was very impressive as well. Very, very dynamic offense.”
And while the Buckeyes did a great job against the Clemson receivers as well, it was Etienne out of the backfield who led the team with 98 yards receiving and two touchdown on three catches.
Together, Lawrence and Etienne made the plays that won the game for Clemson. That has certainly not been forgotten by the guys trying to stop them once again.
“I think [Lawrence] and [Travis] Etienne are two of the most dynamic players in college football, and probably in the history of college football,” Day said. “Do I think that experience matters? Absolutely. I think the fact that a lot of those guys played in that game and having the experience of playing in that game is critical. I think that’s why these Clemson teams have won so many games, because they’ve played in this environment before, which hopefully also plays in our favor, is that we were there last year. We didn’t come home with a win, but we gained some experience there and hopefully that pays off dividends.”
That experience will have them well prepared, even if the coaching staff is a bit different and there are a number of new defensive starters in the Ohio State lineup.
For the guys who don’t have the on-field memories of playing against the Tigers, there will be plenty of film. And when they watch Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, they’ll see plays being made all over the place. And an offensive line enjoying every second of it.
“Whenever you’ve got two of the best players in the country behind you, it makes my job pretty easy, really,” said Stewart. “I know that they’re handling their business just like I’m gonna handle mine. And so as a defensive person, you’ve really got to — it’s tough, I’m sure it’s tough– try to handle 16 [Lawrence]. And then when you think you handle 16, here comes 9 [Etienne]. And so I wouldn’t want to be a defensive coordinator trying to scheme up against Clemson’s offense, that’s for sure.”
Scheming up against the Clemson offense is exactly where the Ohio State coaches find themselves over this holiday weekend. And when they look at everything Lawrence and Etienne can do, stopping them in one area doesn’t necessarily mean containing them overall.
Together, Lawrence and Etienne are the collective faces (and arms and legs) of the Clemson offense. It starts there. The better question is whether or not Ohio State can end it there as well.