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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Towering offenses. Modest defenses. An over/under as high as 70 points.
Friday night’s Orange Bowl between seventh-ranked Ohio State and No. 12 Clemson looks to be a scoreboard-straining shootout — and Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman can’t wait.
“I’ve got the best seat in the house to watch that sucker, man,” said Herman, who will call the game from Sun Life Stadium’s press box. “That’s awesome. I get to sit up there with my hot dogs and popcorn and Diet Coke and get to watch this thing go down, man.”
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In truth, OSU’s sleep-deprived resident MENSA member will be wrenching his mind, trying to outwit a counterpart in Clemson spread guru Chad Morris, who is just as cutting-edge.
“Him more than me if you look at his paycheck,” Herman cracked of Morris, who is the nation’s highest-paid coordinator with a $1.3 million annual salary.
The Orange Bowl will match not only no-huddle spread offenses with dual-threat quarterbacks but likeminded staffs. Ohio State’s coaches spent three days at Clemson on an intel-gathering trip last spring while Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer reportedly tried to hire Morris upon his arrival in Columbus — a charge that turned into a he-said-he-said match between the two sides this week.
In any case, Meyer may be more in tune with Clemson’s program than any other nationally.
During his one year off in 2011, Meyer called several of the Tigers’ game as an analyst for ESPN and grew close with Morris, a longtime Texas high school coach who had made the leap to college a year earlier. He became enamored with Clemson’s searing pace — the Tigers, for instance, ran a staggering 100 plays in their bowl win against LSU last season — and the unique ways Morris got the ball to players in open space.
■ The Buckeyes will leave town with some serious swag. With the NCAA allowing bowls to dish out $550 in gifts to up to 125 players, each team member received a Tourneau watch and their pick of items from an eight-tiered gift suite. Players get eight points, which means they can go for broke with one item from the most expensive tiers — say, a powered home theater recliner, a Trek mountain bike, or a Ferragamo French wallet for the girlfriend — or mix and match from the lesser tiers.
■ Don’t all rush to the ticket window at once. The market for Friday night’s Orange Bowl remains tepid, with both OSU and Clemson still struggling to unload their 17,500-ticket allotment and nearly 3,000 tickets on StubHub selling for as little as $44. The Buckeyes have given back 9,000 of their tickets — priced between $90 and $240 — to the Orange Bowl. According to a StubHub spokesman, 17 percent of its sales for the game are from Ohio while 12 percent are from South Carolina. Unsold tickets will be distributed to local military and youth groups.
■ Some fans will have a long memory of the Buckeyes’ strangely spare use of star running back Carlos Hyde late in their Big Ten title game loss to Michigan State. (He ran 18 times for 118 yards overall). But OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman is not one of the second-guessers. Not anymore, at least. "I think there’s always regret when you lose," he said. "I don’t think you ever walk off the field, saying, ‘Yeah, we did everything that we thought we were going to do, and we did it as well as we thought.’ But what those things were — not to be coy — I don’t remember. It feels like that was three years ago."
Meyer and Morris began talking on the phone about once a week.
“You know coach Meyer, he’s definitely always looking to try to find something that separates him offensively,” Morris said. “He would come out and watch our practice, and after practice was over with, we’d just sit and talk for a while.”
When Meyer came to Ohio State in November 2011, Morris was widely reported as his target for offensive coordinator. Morris said he spoke with Meyer about the job, and Clemson took the threat seriously, raising his salary to $1.3 million per year. In short order, Morris had gone from leading Lake Travis High School to a second straight undefeated state championship season in 2009, to an assistant position at Tulsa in 2010, to a seven-figure payday.
“When [Meyer] got back in it, to be considered and to talk to him, it was an honor,” Morris said. “But it was right around our ACC championship game, and it was pretty much within hours that we were talking [about a new contract].”
Meyer, though, disputed he pursued Morris, saying they “never talked” about the job.
“There was no truth to that,” Meyer said. “I don’t know where that came from. I’ll have to ask Chad someday, ‘Did you start that?’ But I have a lot of respect for him and what he did. The transformation from Clemson’s previous offense to his was almost overnight.”
As was the transformation of Ohio State’s with Meyer and Herman.
Now both sides will see a little bit of themselves in the other Friday night, with a pair of star quarterbacks — two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller at OSU and Clemson senior Tajh Boyd — leading big-play offenses piling up more than 40 points and 500 yards per game.
Just stop calling it a shootout. That is, if you ask Clemson’s Brent Venables, who asked if somebody — anybody — will please think about the defenses in all of this.
“When everybody says it will be a shootout, you take offense to that,” the Tigers’ defensive coordinator said.
Taking offense to offense? Morris and Herman can’t imagine.
“It will be fun,” he said, “watching [Miller and Boyd] go after the opposing defenses all night long.”