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Orange Bowl matchups: Oklahoma O-line vs. Clemson pass rush

Shaq Lawson and the Clemson D can bring the rush, and Oklahoma has given up quite a few sacks this season. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

With the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl looming, we're breaking down the key matchups that could define the game.

Next up: Oklahoma’s offensive line vs. the Clemson defensive front

David Hale: Shaq Lawson says Clemson’s game plan is simple: Hit hard, hit often. Lawson suggested the Big 12 opposition Oklahoma faced this season was, at times, less than aggressive with the Sooners up front, and that opened up some big holes for the ground game and gave Baker Mayfield ample opportunities to make plays. Still, look at the numbers, and Oklahoma allowed 36 sacks -- more than any Big 12 team except Iowa State and Kansas.

Now look at the flip side: Clemson’s defensive front has been relentless this season, with Lawson an All-American pass rusher and the Tigers racking up 38 sacks (sixth nationally) and 108 tackles for loss (second). Clemson pressures the opposing quarterback on 34 percent of dropbacks.

Considering the youth on Oklahoma’s line, isn’t this perhaps the biggest advantage Clemson has in this game?

Jake Trotter: Yep, I agree. This could be a problematic matchup for the Sooners. Orlando Brown and Dru Samia have been very solid at offensive tackle for the Sooners as freshmen. But Lawson & Co. provide quite the challenge off the edge.

That said, there are two things that will help Oklahoma here. Mayfield’s escapability and the running game. The Sooners are more than capable of getting Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon rolling against a Clemson front that’s much better rushing the passer than stopping the run. If they can establish the run, that will mitigate Clemson’s advantage off the edge and keep the Tigers off balance.

Hale: It certainly sounds, from talking to Clemson’s defensive staff, like Perine and the Sooners’ ground game will be a focus, and that might cut down on some of that pin-your-ears-back pursuit of the QB. And as you note, it’s crucial to bottle up Mayfield in the pocket. Clemson has struggled against some mobile QBs, including Marquise Williams (97 non-sack rush yards), Lorenzo Nunez (86) and Zack Mahoney (79) in the final month of the season. And for what it’s worth, those teams ran for an average of 5.5 yards per carry against the Tigers.

It’s also worth mentioning, however, that Clemson’s final month of the season was a grueling test for those D-linemen, all of whom were fairly gassed by the ACC championship game. The time off and the extra bowl practices could have a positive effect, and for all his talent, Mayfield was far less effective when under pressure this season.

Trotter: Actually, Mayfield has been rather lethal against the blitz this season. In fact, he has thrown 13 touchdowns with no interceptions while facing five or more rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s the best touchdown-interception ratio against the blitz of any Power 5 QB in the country. That, combined with Mayfield’s slipperiness, could dissuade Brent Venables from bringing the blitz as much as he normally would.

If it’s me, I still test OU’s young offensive line with some exotic looks early. Making Mayfield uncomfortable is paramount for the Tigers.

Hale: All good points, but one last number to keep in mind: No team Oklahoma has played this season gets pressure without blitzing more than Clemson. And when that happens, opposing QBs are completing just 32 percent of their throws with 18 sacks and no touchdowns.