Ohio State football: The most important play stays winning

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Punter Cameron Johnston was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts against Wisconsin, and his consistency is a huge advantage for the Buckeyes.

Punting was not a strength for the 2012 Buckeyes, and with punter Ben Buchanan graduating, finding his replacement was a top priority for Urban Meyer and special teams coach Kerry Coombs. Australian-born Cameron Johnston, last week's Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week, is filling the role nicely.

Last season, there were issues with Buchanan's hang time, which led to protection lapses when the Buckeyes had to send more players downfield to cover punts, creating vulnerability to blocked punts. Three of the Buckeyes' punts were blocked last season. It was definitely not all on Buchanan, as the Buckeyes had a lot of personnel changes on the punt team, and those inconsistencies led to more pressure on Buchanan as well.

Head coach Urban Meyer had not been pleased with Johnston's hang time through the first four weeks of the season, but it was much improved against Wisconsin, which allowed Ohio State's gunners to get downfield and establish adequate coverage, limiting returns. As a matter of fact, even with the shorter hang time earlier in the season, there has only been one return on a Johnston punt so far this season, for a total of three yards, last week against Wisconsin. He is consistently putting the ball inside the 20, or deeper, and giving the punt coverage team the opportunity to do their job effectively.

Johnston has punted 18 times this season, and has a per-punt average of 40.5 yards through five games, with his longest being a 61-yard punt. Eleven of his punts have landed inside the opponent's 20 yard line.

Ohio State has not played teams with great punt return prowess so far this season--the best average yards per return among their opponents thus far would be the Buffalo Bulls, averaging nine yards per return on three returns. The Northwestern Wildcats are no different, having amassed a total of six return yards on one return thus far in the 2013 season. They have, however, been missing their star punt return specialist, Venric Mark, who has been recovering from injury, but is prepared to start against the Buckeyes on Saturday.

Ohio State's season is becoming more challenging, now that the non-conference games are out of the way, and winning the field position battle is fundamentally important. Cameron Johnston's punting skills, in combination with the effective coverage from the punt team, are a huge advantage for the Buckeyes.

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