Under cloudless skies and with the mountains of the Tonto National Forest serving as a backdrop, Ohio State Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer delivered a picture-perfect speech to his team Tuesday.
In their first practice at Notre Dame Prep Academy, northeast of Phoenix, where they will work out all week in preparation for the Fiesta Bowl at 7 p.m. Saturday, the Buckeyes took a break to hear from their coach. The media observed the 15-minute segment in which Meyer spoke, meaning anyone on social media watching the many live broadcasts of the practice also heard Meyer’s PG13-rated talk.
“Let’s have a good practice today,” he said. “Practice with a purpose so when your number’s called, you can make that play.”
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Meyer referenced a number of big plays made by the Buckeyes in recent years — from defensive lineman Steve Miller’s interception return for a touchdown against Alabama two years ago to Raekwon McMillan’s quarterback pressure that forced an interception against Michigan on Nov. 30 — and reminded the Buckeyes they wouldn’t be playing for the national title if it weren’t for big plays in big moments.
“That play could change the game,” Meyer said, “and it is your job and our job as coaches to make sure you’re ready to go when that happens.”
No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) will need big plays out of its much-scrutinized passing game when it plays No. 2 Clemson (12-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
That has been a topic of discussion all month, and it remained a talking point Tuesday as selected players and coaches from Ohio State’s offense and Clemson’s defense met with the media at the Camelback Inn, the site of press conferences all week and Fiesta Bowl Media Day on Thursday.
Clemson senior safety Jadar Johnson stole the headlines by saying what he thinks in regards to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Tigers saw Barrett’s predecessor, Braxton Miller, three seasons ago in the Orange Bowl. They have watched film of that game in preparation for this game.
“I feel like Braxton Miller could throw a little better than J.T.,” Johnson said. “I’m not really strong on J.T. Barrett’s arm. I don’t really think he can throw that well. I’m not saying he can’t throw at all. He definitely can put it out there. I definitely think Braxton Miller was a better quarterback.”
Barrett threw 24 touchdown passes and averaged 202.3 passing yards per game in 2016. The Buckeyes averaged 258.3 yards per game on the ground.
Barrett has produced 100 touchdowns (passing and rushing) in his career, leaving him six short of tying the Big Ten record. Even with those gaudy numbers, Barrett’s passing abilities remain a question mark for some.
“They have a good passing game, but they’re really a run-first team,” Johnson said. “They want to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball and get us on our heels. If they can get five or six yards per carry, that puts us on our heels, or it makes us want to commit to the run a little more, and that’s when they can throw the ball over our heads. Whatever their first option is, that’s what we need to stop, and their first option is to run, and basically a lot of the times the run comes from their quarterback. They do have a good running back (Mike Weber). I really like him. They like to run that downhill run with the quarterback and get him up in the trench. I just feel if our D-line can limit him on that, it’ll force them to pass a little more than they want to.”
Barrett didn’t get a chance to respond to those comments — you can be sure he will get that chance Thursday — because Ohio State’s players spoke before Clemson. However, Barrett knows the passing game has to improve if the Buckeyes want to beat Clemson, and he believes it will.
“I like where we’re at right now,” Barrett said. “I think we’re going to be at a good place with the preparation this week and the things that we’ve already done in bowl practice. I think we’re going to be ready when game time comes. I have confidence in the things that we’re doing. I think, like I said, with the preparation, the extra preparation we had this week, I think it’s going to be really good for us and just help us all be more right for the game.”