The first loss of a season has a funny way of putting things into perspective; not just for fans, but for players and coaches as well. In 2014, Ohio State dropped a stunner to unranked Virginia Tech before winning out to claim the first College Football Playoff Championship. The next year, an upset at the hands of No. 9 Michigan State derailed their chances for back-to-back titles, but the Buckeyes ended the season outscoring No. 12 Michigan and No. 8 Notre Dame 86-41 to end the season.
So, despite last Saturday’s loss to Penn State, there is still hope for Ohio State to make it back to the CFB Playoff. So, as Urban Meyer said to the media on Monday, it’s time to move on and start focusing on what needs to be done to make the most of whatever awaits for the rest of the season; no matter how mad you were Saturday night.
Many fans were particularly perturbed by unusual playcalling that felt uncomfortably similar to that of the 2015 Michigan State loss, in which stud running back Ezekiel Elliot ran the ball only 12 times for 33 yards. In the next two games, the future Dallas Cowboy ran for 214 yards on 30 carries against the Wolverines and 149 on 27 rushes against the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. Will the OSU coaching staff use last Saturday’s loss as a way to reexamine what has and hasn’t worked thus far in 2016? Let’s hope so.
If you concede that the special teams blunders that ultimately played a large role in Penn State’s victory were little more than aberrations for an otherwise top-notch unit, besides porous offensive line play, the most glaring deficiencies for the team is an inability for the Buckeyes to get consistent production on offense against stout defenses.
On Saturday, wide receivers caught a combined five passes for 70 yards against the Nittany Lions. The remaining 23 passes from quarterback J.T. Barrett went to three different backs and tight end Marcus Baugh.
All four of those pass-catchers are solid performers, but only one has proven to be a reliable and dynamic playmaker. H-back Curtis Samuel leads the team in all-purpose yards at 998 on 101 touches from scrimmage. He leads the team in both yards per carry and yards per target, and he is just two tenths of a percentage behind running back Mike Weber in terms of Catch Rate while working far more often downfield than the freshman.
That is why it was frustrating to many Buckeye fans on Saturday, that it took Samuel nearly 21 minutes of game time and 24 offensive snaps to get his first touch. Barrett over threw him twice before that, but for the player who leads the team in touchdowns scored, that seemed odd.
Meyer agreed; “Curtis is the one guy that I'm trying to make sure touches the ball and I think he did okay,” he said in his Monday news conference. “Early in the game I understood we played a bunch of plays before he got it. That shouldn't happen. But they were also forcing us to get out of some plays with some of the things they were doing.”
That is why going into this Saturday’s matchup against a resurgent Northwestern team, H-back Curtis Samuel is the offensive player to watch.
Name: Curtis Samuel
Weight: 197 lbs.
Rushing: 527 yards, 4 TDs
Receiving: 471 yards, 3 TDs
Against the Nittany Lions, Samuel provided the most exciting play from scrimmage; the back took a 3rd and 2 handoff 74 yards to the end zone, the longest carry of his career. Though there were more then 25 minutes left in regulation when he put the Bucks up 19-7, Samuel got only one more carry in the game, for which he was stopped for a three-yard loss.
After two difficult losses to start the season, the Wildcats have been quietly building momentum knocking off Iowa, Michigan State, and Indiana in consecutive weeks to start October.
The NU secondary has suffered injuries to nearly every defensive back that has seen the field this year; in turn, they have given up 282.4 passing yards per game, 111th in the country. However, as of late, the run defense has been picking up the slack after a few less than ideal early outcomes.
The unit gave up 198 on the ground to Western Michigan in a 22-21 season opening loss. Then to kick off Big Ten play, the Wildcats gave up a whopping 310 to Nebraska en route to a 24-13 defeat. Since then, however, they have given up just 79, 51, and 84 against the Hoosiers, Spartans, and Hawkeyes respectively. This turnaround has them up to 32nd in rushing defense nationally.
Northwestern boasts a strong linebacking corps, no doubt much to head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s delight. All-America candidate Anthony Walker Jr. and senior Jaylen Prater have combined for 87 tackles on the season, more than 21% of the team’s total. Against Indiana on Saturday, Walker recorded 11 tackles, including two for loss.
While the LBs are more than formidable, the real menace to opposing offenses is Ifeadi Odenigbo. The former liability leads the Big Ten in sacks with eight, and has nine total tackles for loss. The senior lineman from Centerville, OH is an impressive combination of speed and strength at 6’3”, 295 lbs. After shaky O-line play haunted Ohio State against PSU, one or two lineman will need to account for Odenigbo every time Barrett drops back to pass.
What to watch for
With Meyer’s comments about needing to get Samuel involved earlier in the game, there will be no doubt that Fitzgerald will look to recreate Penn State’s plan of limiting his touches. However, while last Saturday didn’t show it, at times this year, the offensive coaching staff has been adept at getting Samuel the ball in a multitude of ways. With his dynamic skill set, it would behoove the Ohio State offense to create as many opportunities to get him in space as possible.
The majority of Ohio State’s running plays this season have come on the zone read between Barrett and running back Mike Weber. However, with only two rushes for Samuel against Penn State, despite OSU leading the entire game until there was less than four and a half minutes left, it would make sense for Coaches Warinner and Beck to mix back in the options and sweeps that worked earlier in the season for Samuel.
While Ohio State can probably win many, if not most, of their remaining games with a staunch defense and the vanilla zone read-heavy offense, if they are going to reassert themselves in the playoff conversation, they will have to figure out how to recreate the explosive offense that catapulted them to No. 2 in the rankings earlier this season.