It's been far too long since we previewed an Ohio State football game. We last saw the Buckeyes look their best two weeks ago, as they handed Rutgers a 42-point road beatdown. The offense was efficient and explosive in both phases, while the defense allowed next to nothing for the majority of the night. Coupled with the previous week's rout of Penn State, it appeared Ohio State was rounding into the team most of us expected to start the year, something the advanced stats agree with. It was all good news heading into the bye week.
The bad news came during said bye week, however, as JT Barrett was cited for an OVI and suspended for this week's game. If you want a fresh take on that, you won't find it here. What's done is done, and Cardale Jones will start against Minnesota.
The Gophers come to Ohio Stadium fresh off of a tumultuous week of their own. After head coach Jerry Kill sadly stepped down due to health issues, Minnesota gave Michigan all they could handle, ultimately losing a game they had a very good chance to win at the end. Tracy Claeys' James Franklin-esque clock management aside, it was a good performance from a Minnesota team who appeared completely outmatched versus Michigan coming into the game.
It's another mismatch this week, as the Buckeyes are listed as 23-point home favorites. Even with Barrett's suspension, the Buckeye offense is poised to exploit Minnesota's defensive weaknesses, while attacking a mediocre Gopher offense. Here are five things to watch on Saturday night:
Playing with confidence
Fun Cardale Jones is the best Cardale Jones. Forgotten amidst the quarterback #takes that have dominated Ohio State's season is how entertaining Jones can be. From trolling the opposition's fan base, to the charisma he brings to the field, few Buckeyes have given fans a better time than Cardale. Unfortunately, it seems like the confidence that's come to define Jones has been absent for most of the season.
Even after winning the job in fall camp, it felt like Jones was constantly looking over his shoulder, and eventually, his inconsistency cost him the starting job. Barrett's unexpected suspension opens the door again, and Jones should be able to take advantage and regain some of the confidence he showed last season.
In 2014's stretch run, Jones knew he would be the starter. The Buckeyes really had no other option at that point, and though the running game was a huge factor, Jones played confidently and let it fly. Interestingly enough, he's in the same position again this week.
For at least one game, the starting quarterback job is truly his. Barrett's suspension leaves Ohio State with Jones as the only true quarterback option. For the first time all season, Jones doesn't have to worry that a mistake is going to get him pulled. Confidence defines Jones' game, and despite facing a very good Minnesota pass defense, it wouldn't be completely shocking to see him have a good day, and for fun Cardale to re-enter our lives.
5 yards and a cloud of dust
With Minnesota's pass defense in mind, it stands to reason that the Buckeyes won't go out of their way to attack through the air, at least to begin the game. If the Gophers were able to slow TCU's high-flying offense for much of their early season tilt, they'll certainly give Ohio State trouble. The Buckeyes strong ground attack may open things up a bit more than the Horned Frogs were able to, however.
While 'Give Ezekiel Elliott the ball' is a sound strategy against any defense, we'll probably see Ohio State lean heavily on its star running back early and often. Elliott hasn't received less than 16 carries in a game since the season opener, and could conceivably match his season high of 27 in this one. His ability to churn out solid gains will be key against the Gopher defense.
Though Minnesota has done a good job of preventing explosive runs, they've allowed opponents to move the ball on them in decent chunks. The Gopher defensive line repeatedly gets pushed off the line of scrimmage, whether it's in passing or standard downs. Not only that, but they also have rarely found themselves in the opponents backfield. Sounds like a recipe for a big day for Zeke, doesn't it?
For Zeke to gain those yards, it'll be up the the men up front to provide him some room. To do so, they'll need to correct what have been a few weaknesses in the first eight games. Running in short yardage situations and preventing disruptions have been those soft spots for 'The Slobs' this year, as the Buckeyes rank 45th in adjusted line yards, and 87th in stuff rate.
While the high stuff rate has been there all season, the Buckeyes ability to generate a push has improved as the season has gone on; not solely relying on Elliott to make plays as they did in September and early October. It's tough to expect that a bye week can completely fix those issues, but a free week to work out the kinks couldn't have hurt.
While the loss of JT Barrett and some of the read plays he runs so well may effect the Buckeyes ability to run the ball to some extent, the line should be able to control the Gophers front seven. If they can take care of business, the play action game, and Jones' ability to stretch the field with his arm come into play.
With Jones returning to the starting quarterback role this week, the offense will receive most of the attention come Saturday night. That being said, it's also worth focusing on the other side of the ball and how the Buckeye defense attacks the Minnesota offense.
While the Gophers were good against Michigan last week, much of the season has been a struggle. The past few seasons' of quality running left with the departure of former running back David Cobb, leaving Minnesota to rely on quarterback Mitch Leidner and the passing game much more than in the past. While Leidner has been relatively efficient, the Gopher offense lacks a true big play threat. This is good news for an an Ohio State defense whose biggest issues are in those areas.
The defensive calling card for Ohio State has been its willingness to trade the occasional big play for a high level of efficiency. Maryland and Penn State were able to take advantage of this most recently, making Ohio State pay in the small amount of shots they got. Minnesota probably doesn't have the personnel to do the same.
The Gophers have struggled on first downs this season, and with their dearth of playmakers, it's hard to see how they move the ball down the field against the Ohio State defense. If it's possible for the Buckeyes to sell out against efficiency any more than they already have, this is the offense they're going to do it to.
Rested and ready
Playing eight straight weeks of football is a tough task, especially for a group of 18-22 year olds. Not only can fatigue and the mental grind of the season be an issue, but the Buckeyes have the pressure of being the defending national champions, the nation's number one team, and getting each opponent's utmost attention. While the latter will still hold true; after a week off, the Buckeyes should be rested and ready to kick off the final push of the regular season.
Keep a close eye on how Ohio State starts the game, on both sides of the ball. Scoring early has been a problem for the Buckeye offense, particularly on opening drives. An opening touchdown would not only ease those concerns, but would stop 'Cardale Jones can't lead the offense!' takes from raining down from the get go. Regardless of how you feel about the quarterback situation, we all deserve a game without those.
Defensively, it'd be nice to have a bit more early consistency. Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State were able to move the ball early to varying degrees, though the defense eventually adjusted. If the Silver Bullets can stop Minnesota from getting comfortable early, they should be in for a fantastic game. Paired with an offense that scores early, this one has a chance to get out of hand pretty quick.