Ohio State Buckeyes strength coach Mickey Marotti bellowed the same two words over and over again Wednesday at Notre Dame Prep High School.
“Three days!” he chanted.
The countdown to the Fiesta Bowl and the College Football Playoff semifinals continued as Ohio State held its second practice since arriving in Arizona on Monday. Twelve miles away, the Clemson Tigers practiced at Scottsdale Community College.
Despite having a better ranking and record, No. 2 Clemson (12-1) is a three-point underdog against No. 3 Ohio State (11-1). If the Buckeyes have a slight edge in oddmakers’ minds, it’s because of their defense. Three years ago, the Buckeyes faced Clemson in the Orange Bowl with a defense that allowed 30 or more points four times in the regular season and then gave up 576 yards of total offense in a 40-35 loss.
The 2014 and 2015 defenses redeemed Ohio State and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. The 2016 defense has been just as good. He reaped the dividends by earning his first head coaching job with the Cincinnati Bearcats, but he’s got a job to finish at Ohio State before he starts working full time for UC.
Fickell, who shares coordinator duties with Greg Schiano, will get another chance to show how far the defense has come at 7 p.m. Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Stopping Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson will be the goal.
“Obviously we played these guys four years ago, and they had some incredible wideouts with Sammy Watkins and those guys,” Fickell said Wednesday in a press conference at the Camelback Inn. “Deshaun can actually truly make every throw. The deep balls are the ones that he throws an unbelievable ball on. Obviously we know he can run, but his ability to have the balance to be able to do it all is the thing that makes them to me the most explosive.”
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Watson, a junior, is 30-3 as a starter. He set a school record with 37 touchdown passes this season, leaving him three short of tying the Atlantic Coast Conference single-season record set by Florida State’s Jameis Winston in 2013. Watson also ranks second on the team with 526 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
“You can’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to stop the run and we’re going to make them beat us throwing,’” Fickell said. “We can’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to stop the pass, make them beat us with the run.’ The balance of what they do, his ability not to only throw the deep ball but to make every throw, I think, is what really, really makes him go.”
Fickell has helped develop a defensive game plan while keeping one eye on his new job as Cincinnati’s head coach.
“Sleep’s overrated,” Fickell joked. “Sleep plenty some day when you’re dead.”
On the other hand, Fickell doesn’t want to overdo it because he needs energy for his players.
“If we don’t have the ability to turn some of the stuff off, focus in, lock in, get some rest and have the ability to have your energy when we go to practice,” Fickell said, “when we get around our guys, we’d be doing them a disservice.”
Cincinnati hired Fickell on Dec. 10. Ever since, he has bounced between both jobs.
“The mind starts to race, but the reality is that ability to focus back and say, OK, where has my energy got to be spent,” Fickell said. “When we get our four, five hours with our guys we’ve got to be on our toes and have the utmost energy. We can’t be tired because we haven’t had enough rest. The ability to balance those things as a coach is what we’ve got to do to be able to give our kids the most.”
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