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Ohio State vs. Western Michigan preview: It's now or never for Cardale Jones

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For the second week in a row, Ohio State hosts a team from the MAC West, but this week the Buckeyes will be hoping to have a little easier go of things.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After struggling mightily with turnovers and inefficient offensive play last week, Urban Meyer is hoping the close call against Northern Illinois is what his team needed to get them playing like they did at the end of last season. Ohio State turned the ball over five times against Northern Illinois, which marked just the second time an Urban Meyer coached team has been that careless with the football. With the number of turnovers, the Buckeye offense wasn't able to get into a rhythm, and finished the game with under 300 yards of offense.

Had it not been for another outstanding performance from the defense, Northern Illinois very well could have left Ohio Stadium with the upset victory. Not only did the defense force Northern Illinois into three turnovers, the biggest of which was Darron Lee's 41-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter, but the Buckeyes held the Huskies to under 200 yards of offense for the first time since a October 2008 loss at Tennessee. Northern Illinois came into the game averaging 594 yards per game on offense, which ranked seventh in the NCAA.

Saturday's game marks the first-ever meeting between Ohio State and Western Michigan, and the Buckeye defense should get another test from a offense that can move the football just as well as Northern Illinois. The Broncos have had a bit of a rough start to the season, losing their first two games to Michigan State and Georgia Southern before earning their first victory of the season last week against Murray State in Kalamazoo.

Following a 8-5 season last year, which was capped by a trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, expectations were high this year in Kalamazoo for the Broncos. After a 1-11 season in his first year as head coach in 2013, P.J. Fleck showed why he is one of the best young coaches in college football, engineering a seven win turnaround for Western Michigan in 2014. Even with their struggles in the first two games of the season, Ohio State can't afford to look past the Broncos or else they could have another close contest on their hands.

Data dump

Team Record AP F/+ Rk Line
Western Michigan 1-2 NR 89
Ohio State 3-0 1 2 -31.5

Western Michigan Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 51 1.33 90 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 42.2% 75 50.7% 121 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 27.6 99 31.6 104 29.6
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.17 45 5.26 108 4.68
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -0.29 77 Turnover Luck (PPG):
-9.52
ACTUAL -6 121

Ohio State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.19 89 1.03 16 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 44.6% 54 28.7% 9 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.3 22 29.5 76 29.6
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.76 70 4.11 43 4.68
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -1.16 103 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+1.93
ACTUAL 0 61

Western Michigan's biggest advantages

Why not us? P.J. Fleck has to have his team thinking that if Northern Illinois can come into Columbus and almost upset Ohio State, why can't Western Michigan? Fleck started off his coaching career as a grad assistant at Ohio State under Jim Tressel, so he knows all about the mystique of The Horseshoe. The Broncos opened the season by facing Michigan State, so they already have a game under their belt against one of the upper echelon teams in the Big Ten. Even though Western Michigan fell behind the Spartans in the first half, they didn't give up and were threatening to close to within a touchdown of Michigan State late in the fourth quarter before a turnover ended those hopes.

In just his third year as a head coach, Fleck has already accomplished quite a lot, which has him on a lot of lists to move on to coach a Power 5 conference team in the next few years. The seven-win turnaround in 2014 was the best in the country, and Western Michigan returns a lot of the offensive core which made them so successful last season. The most important thing Fleck has done in just a short time is to create confidence in a team that was 1-11 just two years ago. Even with the tough start to the season, Fleck's team is being thought of as a serious contender to end Northern Illinois' recent reign of supremacy in the MAC West.

Pitch and catch. The Ohio State secondary is playing at an exceptional level right now, but they'll have their work cut out for them in trying to contain Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman. For as productive as Davis has been so far in his Western Michigan career, it's hard to believe he is only a junior. With two receiving touchdowns last week against Murray State, Davis inched his way up into a tie for fifth all-time on Western Michigan's career receiving touchdowns list. After grabbing 67 passes for 941 yards in his freshman season, Davis really made a name for himself last year, racking up 78 catches for 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns. At 6-3, Davis provides a big target for quarterback Zach Terrell, which Terrell utilizes as the Broncos get closer to the end zone.

Daniel Braverman might not have the size that Davis has, but the redshirt junior catches pretty much everything thrown his way. Braverman has recorded double-digit catches in each game so far this season, and already has 40 catches through three games. The 13.3 catches per game that Braverman is averaging so far this year is tops among all FBS receivers. Last year Braverman caught 86 passes for 997 yards and six touchdowns. The 5-10 wide receiver isn't going to stretch the field in the same capacity that Davis will, but what Braverman does best is keep the chains moving. Think of Braverman as a Wes Welker or Julian Edelman type of wide receiver. He's not flashy but Terrell is able to count on him when he isn't able to find Davis.

Super sophomore. Western Michigan has plenty of talent to get the job on offense done through the air, but what really made them tick last year was the performance of true freshman running back Jarvion Franklin. The Illinois native was a workhorse for the Broncos, carrying 306 times for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground. In seven games last year, Franklin rumbled for at least 140 yards. While he slowed down to end the season, a lot of that can be attributed to the freshman being leaned on so heavily in the first half of the season.

Franklin didn't quite start his sophomore season as strongly as he did last year, but a lot of that is because Western Michigan fell behind early in their first two games, which eliminated any threat of the run. Franklin only carried the ball eight times against Michigan State in the season opener after the Broncos fell behind 27-7 in the second quarter. Last week saw Franklin return to his 2014 form, as he scampered for 161 yards on 27 carries. The 6-foot, 220-pound running back is a physical runner, who will be tested against the aggressive Ohio State defense. If Western Michigan is able to find some success on the ground with Franklin, it will do wonders to open up the passing game for Davis and Braverman. What the Broncos can't do if they want to utilize Franklin is fall into another early hole, which would eliminate the threat Franklin gives them.

Ohio State's biggest advantages

Let Zeke eat. If the Buckeyes want a recipe for offensive success they'd be wise to give Western Michigan multiple helpings of their junior running back. Last week Ezekiel Elliott recorded his eighth consecutive game of topping 100 yards on the ground, and he should be able to add to that total if Western Michigan's run defense plays as poorly in this game as they have so far this season. While Elliott was able to top 100 yards on the day, he wasn't able to get into the end zone on the ground. The last time Elliott didn't score a rushing touchdown was during last year's game at Minnesota. For the first time in 26 games, Ohio State didn't record a rushing touchdown, and it marked only the second time in 44 games under Urban Meyer that the Buckeyes failed to score a rushing touchdown.

The Broncos are allowing opponents to rush for 224 yards per game, A big chunk of that number came against Georgia Southern, who used their triple-option attack to gash Western Michigan for 413 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Michigan State was able to gain nearly 200 yards rushing against the Broncos in the season opener behind their powerful offensive line. If Ohio State's experienced offensive line can return to how they played to finish last season, Elliott could be in line for a big day.

Defense cures what ails. It is no secret that Ohio State's defense has been spectacular the last two weeks, but the Silver Bullets look even better when you dive into the numbers. For the second consecutive week, the Buckeyes held their opponent to under 100 yards passing, and for the season is only allowing opponents 119 yards per game through the air. Ohio State is giving up 225 total yards of offense per game to opponents, both numbers rank first in the Big Ten and fifth best in the FBS. The Buckeyes have only given up one rushing touchdown through three games this year, and are one of four Power 5 conference teams to not give up a run of 20 yards or more.

The biggest reason Ohio State has been so successful on defense this year is the pressure they are creating in the backfield. The Buckeyes have racked up 12 sacks in three games this year, which is tied for fourth in the FBS. Darron Lee, Tyquan Lewis, and Sam Hubbard are tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks this season, which ranks eighth best in the Big Ten. Add in the havoc that Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington are capable of creating in the offensive backfield, and many teams are going to find it tough to find traction against this Ohio State defense.

Return of "The Slobs". After their performance the last couple weeks it's hard to imagine the offensive line would be an advantage for Ohio State, but this group is more than capable of quickly turning things around. With four returning starters, the Buckeye offensive line shouldn't be playing as bad as they have so far this year. Co-defensive coordinators called the Hawaii and Northern Illinois defenses as "odd, junk defenses" because of their three down lineman and variety of blitzing angles. Much like Virginia Tech's Bear defense wasn't kind to Ohio State last year in Columbus, the odd fronts Hawaii and Northern Illinois showed the Buckeyes really gave the offensive line fits.

The good news for the Buckeye offensive line is Western Michigan tends to run more of a traditional 4-3 defense, so this could help "The Slobs" get back to what they do best. If Ohio State is able to get their offensive line performing like they did to close out last season, this could quickly get the rest of the offense some much needed confidence. Not only would giving Ezekiel Elliott holes to break some big games allow Ohio State to start some of the tempo offense Urban Meyer likes to run, but it would also be huge to help Cardale Jones break out of his early season funk. With time to survey his options, Jones is less likely to commit some of the costly turnovers that have been seen from him early this season.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 48, Western Michigan 7

Win Probability: Ohio State 99%

Last week the projection looked very similar, with the numbers predicting a 47-15 win over Northern Illinois. So should fans be just as worried about Western Michigan as they ended up being about Northern Illinois? Probably not. Ohio State should see a more traditional defensive front from Western Michigan, which might help the Buckeye offense to finally get moving after sputtering the last two weeks. Even though a win over Western Michigan isn't going to do wonders in the eyes of people around the country, it could be huge in terms of rebuilding some of the confidence that the Buckeye offense seems to be missing right now.

It's not going to be an easy task to slow down Franklin, Davis, Braverman, and the rest of the Western Michigan offense, but if a Michigan State defense that was replacing a number of starters could do so in the season opener, there is no reason this experienced Ohio State defense shouldn't be able to. The numbers might have Western Michigan only scoring a touchdown, but with the talent the Broncos have at their skill positions it wouldn't be surprising to see them put a few more points than projected on the board. The Ohio State defense may give up more points than in the past few weeks, but if the offense finds their groove, the Silver Bullets will have a little more margin for error.

What do you think?