By David Wharton
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The two quarterbacks planned it this way. A couple of summers ago, when Deshaun Watson and J.T. Barrett worked together as counselors at an elite passing camp, they mused about one day facing off in the College Football Playoff.
“It was like, hopefully I’ll see you at the end,” Barrett recalled. “And sure enough, we’re here.”
Watson will lead No. 2 Clemson against Barrett and No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl — a playoff semifinal — at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday. Their showdown pits the Tigers’ mostly aerial attack against a Buckeyes offense that dominates with a punishing ground game and the run-pass option.
The day the matchup was announced, Barrett sent Watson a text: I’ll see you in Arizona, brother.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Watson said. “Just to be able to see him live and compete against one another.”
But it won’t be all smiles and pats on the back. Not only will both teams be fighting for a spot in the national championship game, each of the quarterbacks has a score to settle that reaches beyond their summertime friendship.
It would not seem that Watson has anything left to prove on the field. The 6-3, 215-pound junior has been a Heisman Trophy finalist the last two seasons and recently collected the Johnny Unitas and Davey O’Brien awards as the nation’s top passer. His 9,484 yards and 86 touchdowns on passes help to explain how he has amassed a 30-3 record in less than three seasons as a starter.
But Watson still feels the sting of last January’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national championship, a game played at the same stadium where Saturday’s semifinal will be held.
“You want to finish on top,” he told reporters. “Not just to get in the playoffs but to finish the deal.”
With the Tigers ranked second in the preseason Associated Press media poll, Watson and his teammates occasionally struggled under the weight of expectations.
Their regular season was marred by an upset loss to Pittsburgh and there were unexpectedly close calls against Troy and North Carolina State. The downfield passing game has been partly to blame, not quite as strong as it was during their 2015-16 playoff run. Critics have pointed out that Watson’s 15 interceptions are tied for fourth-most in the nation and that his yards per attempt have dropped slightly. It might seem like nitpicking, but that’s what happens when you are a superstar on one of the top teams in college football.
“Not a good player, a great player,” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said.
This weekend, Watson will face a Buckeyes team that leads the nation in passing efficiency defense and ranks second behind Alabama with seven defensive touchdowns - all of them after interceptions. That means any gaffes could be costly.
Watson talked about using the past weeks of practice to “get everything situated so we’re not making any mistakes.” He added: “This year, we want to flip the script and be the team to sit on the stage at the end.”
The college playoffs evoke a less-than-pleasant memory for Barrett, too. But it has nothing to do with wins or losses. In the fall of 2014, the Texas native earned the starting job as a freshman and led Ohio State to an 11-1 record, setting 19 school records with his passing and running. Then came the rivalry game against Michigan and a broken ankle on the first play of the fourth quarter. Barrett had to watch from the sideline, pushing himself around on a scooter, as Cardale Jones stepped in. The Buckeyes upset top-ranked Alabama in a semifinal, then crushed Oregon for the national title. Not that Barrett wasn’t happy for his team, but he says: “It’s one of the things when I first came here, I wrote down my goals. One of them was to win a national championship.”
After taking back the starter’s role midway through 2015, he entered this season as an established leader. His 2,428 passing yards have not been dazzling, but he has been efficient enough to throw for 24 touchdowns with only five interceptions. And his 847 rushing yards make a him a different sort of dual-threat at 6-2, 222 pounds. “Just a tough runner,”
Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “Running between the tackles, he can break a lot of tackles, running guys over and everything.” Clemson will answer with a defense that has been efficient against the pass and ranks fourth with 3.54 sacks per game.
As Barrett acknowledged: “They’ve got some dudes . they’re at the top as far as disrupting things.”
The question is, can the Buckeyes generate enough offense if the game turns into a track meet? They will need Barrett to make good decisions on option plays and throw the ball downfield effectively, which will require a steady performance from a young offensive line.
The Buckeyes quarterback likes that he enters the game healthy. “I’m not on a scooter or anything,” he said.