- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Breaking down the critical areas and key players as No. 7 Ohio State closes the season against No. 12 Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl (TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.).
Embrace the challenge: As if the Buckeyes haven't had enough challenges thrown their way defensively down the stretch, things have only become more difficult for them despite having all the extra time to prepare for the bowl game after dropping the Big Ten championship against Michigan State. The top pass-rushing threat is at home after Noah Spence was suspended by the conference for three games. The most skilled defensive back is on the shelf thanks to a bone bruise for Bradley Roby. Starting middle linebacker Curtis Grant is still banged up. Even a player who was already ruled out for this game received bad news this week with Christian Bryant's appeal for a medical redshirt denied by the NCAA. That is a lot of adversity for the Buckeyes regardless of how explosive the offense their facing is, and they can either take the challenge head on or shrink in the spotlight.
Secondary shakeup: Urban Meyer vowed changes were coming for his beleaguered defense, and a couple have already come into focus with tweaks to the personnel. Picked on down the stretch, senior Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown is expected to be replaced by Tyvis Powell at safety, and talented freshman Vonn Bell will slide into the nickel back role and see his most extensive playing time of his debut season just before it ends. Those two guys represent the future for the Buckeyes at safety, and they will certainly have their hands full against Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and his talented cast of receivers. No matter what happens, Powell and Bell figure to at least gain some valuable experience heading into an offseason where starting roles are likely to become permanent for them.
Passing fancy: Braxton Miller can change a game without ever throwing a pass thanks to his fleet feet, but the Buckeyes would certainly like to see his accurate arm again. The junior hasn't completed more than 13 throws or topped 160 yards since the first week of November, and while Ohio State still put up a lot of points during that dip in his passing totals, the lack of balance caught up with it against the Spartans. Aside from winning a BCS game, Miller is also trying to impress NFL scouts and prove that he's ready for the next level, and that combination should provide plenty of incentive for him to put his best foot -- or arm -- forward.
Fond farewell: For all the seniors have both been through and accomplished during their careers, there is plenty for them to feel proud about as they suit up for the program for the final time. They battled through the adversity that came with the NCAA sanctions, posted a perfect record in 2012 and a handful provided memorable moments that Ohio State will never forget. Carlos Hyde's relentless rushing style, Kenny Guiton's invaluable work off the bench at quarterback and the physical blocking of four senior starters on the offensive line, just to name a few, have certainly left a mark for the Buckeyes. All of them should be properly motivated to finish on top against the Tigers.
On the Marcus: Noah Spence obviously wasn't working alone as the defensive line quickly went from question mark to one of the most effective units on the team, but the sophomore clearly deserved plenty of credit as he led the team in sacks with 8 and chipped in 14.5 tackles for a loss overall. Now facing a three-game suspension that starts with the Discover Orange Bowl, at least temporarily the Buckeyes again have to replace a starter up front after rebuilding the defensive line completely after last season. Jamal Marcus moved up from linebacker to defensive end as part of that process, and in a supporting role he offered a pair of sacks among his 15 tackles, forced a fumble and showed glimpses of the kind of athleticism that have allowed Spence to thrive in the opposing backfield. Against Clemson, Marcus will have to prove he can do it for an extended period of time, particularly since it will be critical for the Buckeyes to disrupt Boyd and try to force some mistakes with the football.
5dDan Murphy and Austin Ward