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If Ohio State wants to beat Wisconsin, their wide receivers need to really step up

They’ve got the stars. But they’re going to need some production.

Rutgers v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Going into the season, we knew a few things about Ohio State’s wideouts.

We knew they were going to be inexperienced. Virtually every player in the wideouts meeting room had yet to catch a pass during a game. The Buckeyes returned exactly six catches from true wide receivers from 2015, and five of them came from Corey Smith.

We also knew they would be exceptionally talented. Few have recruited as well as Ohio State has over the last few years, and that includes at the wide receiver position. Once blocked by NFL players like Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall, Ohio State would have a bevy of four-star players to chose from. Of the 15 players to catch a pass for Ohio State in 2016, an astounding 14 of them were consensus four-star recruits. When it comes to raw size, speed, and athletic ability, the Buckeye wideouts have that in spades.

But here’s one thing we still don’t know as we approach the halfway point of Ohio State’s season.

Can they be productive pass catchers?

This isn’t to say that Ohio State’s offense, or even their passing offense, hasn’t been effective. It certainly has. The Buckeyes are third in the country in points per game, averaging an absolutely stupid 53.2 a contest. J.T. Barrett has tossed 15 touchdown passes this season, good for 14th nationally. An offense can’t put up anything close to those numbers if their passing game isn’t clicking.

But that doesn’t necessary mean the wideouts are carrying the load. Ohio State’s leading pass catcher right now isn’t exactly a wide receiver, Curtis Samuel. Samuel has hauled in 23 catches, nearly double Ohio State’s second leading receiver, and 345 yards, again, nearly double Ohio State’s second leading receiver.

Ohio State’s second leading pass catcher? Dontre Wilson, who also isn’t exactly a wide receiver. Wilson has 15 grabs for 189 yards. Of Ohio State’s top five pass catchers this season, only two are true wide receivers, and that fifth player, Terry McLaurin, has six catches.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been bright spots. Noah Brown, after all, showed how he could be an absolute red-zone nightmare, grabbing four touchdown passes against Oklahoma. Terry McLaurin had a nice touchdown catch against Rutgers. Others have had individual moments as well.

But that production has not been consistent. And Ohio State is about to face their toughest secondary yet.

For Ohio State’s power-spread offense to be truly effective, opponents need to respect their ability to take the top off a defense and attack it vertically. The team struggled badly in their ability to do that for much of last season, and against Indiana, Ohio State fans saw a preview of what that might look like for this season. The Buckeyes were still able to prevail, but it grounded an otherwise highly potent offense for much of the game, and forced Barrett to run the ball an uncomfortably large number of times.

The Buckeyes could line up in the Wing T and decide to bludgeon other Big Ten teams without ever deciding to throw a meaningful pass if they wanted. But not Wisconsin.

The Badgers are ninth right now in rushing defense in S&P+. Their entire defensive identity is centered around swarming the line of scrimmage to keep teams off schedule, forcing them into uncomfortable passing downs situations, where they can pick passes off (every starting defensive back for Wisconsin has an interception this season). That plan was executed perfectly against LSU and Michigan. And if Wisconsin wants to spring an upset of the Buckeyes, they’ll need to follow that gameplan again.

That makes the performance of Ohio State’s go-to wide receiver even more important.

But who is that right now?

Clearly, Curtis Samuel is Ohio State’s best offensive playmaker, period, no matter where he’s getting the ball. He should be getting 15-16 targets a game, coming from the backfield, screens, end-arounds, and more conventional passing routes. Dontre Wilson would be used in a similar fashion.

But other than that? It’s a legitimate question right now. The most obvious answer seems to be Noah Brown, but other than his monster game against Oklahoma, he’s been somewhat quiet. Brown has caught three passes for 31 yards combined over the last two games.

Immediate superlative production wasn’t realistic. After all, nearly every wideout is an underclassman, and few had anything close to real experience. The most experienced player in the room, Corey Smith, is playing with basically one hand, thanks to an injury, and hasn’t caught a pass this season.

Ohio State also doesn’t need superlative production either, since they’re not running an Air Raid. They want to run the ball 30+ times a game. They want to spread the ball around, including horizontally.

But soon, the Buckeyes are going to need one, if not more, of their true wide receivers to start to provide separation and production. As the offense moves to the true meat of the schedule, it’s efficiency requires regular, consistent, downfield passing threats, not just for deep bombs, but for medium throws as well.

Ohio State has no shortage of possible options, and that’s a good problem to have.

But eventually, you don’t want to keep writing about the potential of the unit. At some point, that production needs to translate.

This week would be a good time for that to start.