Fiesta key lies in figuring out ways to slow McGahee, ClarettPosted: Monday December 30, 2002 2:59 AM
Updated: Monday December 30, 2002 1:20 PM
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Two of the nation's most gifted tailbacks take to the field Friday at the Fiesta Bowl.
In the meantime, two sets of defenses are working furiously trying to figure out how to stop them.
Or at least come close.
"We want to slow down Willis McGahee," said Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm. "You really can't stop him" -- as 12 previous Miami opponents have found out.
The Buckeyes, however, are as qualified as anyone.
No matter the opponent, OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio emphasizes stopping the run first, and it's paid off in the form of the nation's fourth-ranked rush defense (77.8 yards per game). That plan won't change against Miami, even with the threat of a potent passing game from Ken Dorsey.
"When we've had our greatest success, we've stopped the run, made it one-dimensional," Dantonio said. "If they're able to run the football on us, then they're able to pass the ball more effectively."
The Hurricanes have not had as much success against the run, allowing 171.4 yards per contest, including 189 by Florida State's Greg Jones, 175 from West Virginia's Avon Cobourne and 118 for Pittsburgh's Brandon Miree.
Ohio State freshman Maurice Clarett could be more dangerous than any of them.
But Miami has a secret weapon in preparing for him: Frank Gore. The 5-foot-10, 196-pound sophomore, who averaged a staggering 9.1 yards per carry as a freshman reserve but is redshirting this season following an ACL tear last spring, is emulating Clarett on the scout team during bowl practices.
"Most people don't have anyone near that, so you don't truly see a guy like Clarett until after the first quarter when he's ripped you pretty good," Miami head coach Larry Coker said. "They're very similar size-wise, and in speed."
In addition to a strong defensive line, Ohio State's success against the run can be attributed largely to two All-Americans, Wilhelm and safety Mike Doss. The pair has a knack for sensing where the runner is going, swarm to the ball and rarely miss a tackle.
Whether they'll be able to do the same against McGahee, he of 140.5 yards per game and 27 touchdowns, not to mention the nation's most dominant offensive line, remains to be seen. But the model Buckeyes defenders will cite as evidence is Penn State.
The Nittany Lions rolled into Columbus on Oct. 26 with the nation's eventual No. 1 rusher, Larry Johnson, plus talented quarterback Zack Mills and dangerous receiver Bryant Johnson.
They left with all of seven points and 179 total yards.
"They [Miami] haven't played a run defense like ours," safety Donnie Nickey said.
Coker would beg to differ, citing Florida State and Pittsburgh as having tough run defenses on their own right, but acknowledges things won't exactly be easy.
"The thing I want them to understand is not to be frustrated, not to get impatient, because it's probably not going to be touchdown right, touchdown left," he said.
The Buckeyes know that feeling. Their offense hasn't been nearly as prolific as Miami's when it comes to getting in the end zone. But they do have Clarett, who, when healthy, ran for 1,190 yards despite missing all or part of five games.
Whereas McGahee relies more on pure speed and strength, Clarett is an elusive scatback with tremendous vision. Chances are he will get through the line more often than not, so the onus will be on linebackers D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma from wrapping him up before he springs into the backfield.
"He is a guy who, if he can run the ball on us and make first downs, they will be in a position to score touchdowns or score with their great field-goal kicker," said Coker. "It's going to be a big challenge."
Based purely on the stats, it would seem the Buckeyes' run defense is more capable of limiting McGahee than the 'Canes are against Clarett. But Miami's extraordinary balance throws a wrench into the equation. Whereas OSU will be forced to play zone and have guys like Doss and Wilhelm often defend receivers like tight end Kellen Winslow, Miami can afford to play straight man against the Buckeyes' two receivers and stuff the box against the run.
"That first quarter is going to be a real feel-out time," said Wilhelm. "Offensively and defensively, reading each other's game plans on down and distance and really getting a feel for their speed."
So, just who will win this much-anticipated battle of the backs?
Depends on who you ask.
"Reminds me a lot of Maurice Clarett," Nickey said of McGahee. "We practice against him every day, so I think we'll be prepared."
"He's a pretty good back, but he isn't that fast," Gore said of Clarett. "If our defense can stop me, it should be able to stop anybody."