The bad news: Ohio State’s offense appears to have hit the skids, with what once seemed like a high-flying stable of playmakers devolving into a disjointed mess against quality opponents.
The good news: The Buckeye defense still looks as scary as ever.
There are some flaws, of course; no defense is perfect, and Penn State found ways to exploit mismatches (more on that in a minute) and maximize their chances against one of the most stalwart units in the country. But the Ohio State defense is really only on the hook for 14 of the 24 points scored by the Nittany Lions. They held PSU to a field goal that resulted from being given excellent field position on a blocked punt—three points was really a best case scenario there, if you’re a Buckeye fan—and had nothing to do with the gut-punch game winner, a blocked field goal taken back to the house.
This weekend, Ohio State will take on the Northwestern Wildcats with a chance to right the ship and return to the glimpses of championship potential we caught against Oklahoma and at times in the Indiana and Wisconsin games. The defensive line, and one man in particular, could have a lot to do with that:
Name: Tyquan Lewis
Weight: 266 lbs.
Line: 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Lewis is a talented defensive end, and the Buckeyes have gotten a ton of production out of him over the last season and a half. He’s proven himself adapt at harassing quarterbacks and getting into the backfield for stops. His 5.5 TFLs are good for fourth on the team, and the three guys ahead of him—Robert Landers, Nick Bosa, and Jerome Baker—are hardly slouches when it comes to blowing up plays.
The things Lewis is good at will be invaluable to the sustained success of the Buckeye defense this weekend and in perpetuity. A deeper look at the Northwestern offense can tell us why:
Lewis and his teammates will be tasked with haranguing Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson this weekend. Thorson, despite sounding like he should be wearing a tartan suit and smoking a pipe beneath a mantlepiece adorned by exotic hunting trophies, has put together a pretty productive season for Northwestern in his sophomore season. He’s thrown for 14 touchdowns (against 5 interceptions) and has found the end zone three more times on the ground. All told, Thorson’s recorded 1,874 yards of offense so far in 2016.
These numbers aren’t exactly the kind that light the world on fire, but they’re respectable, and for a program like Northwestern, respectability is one of the main goals heading into any given football season.
Where the Wildcats run into trouble with Thorson is that they don’t seem to want to give him much help. He’s been sacked 19 times through seven games, numbers that make J.T. Barrett’s running-for-his-life performance against Penn State seem tame. (Barrett’s been taken down 11 times so far this year, counting the debacle in Happy Valley.)
If you’re a Wildcat fan, that’s not ideal, given what Ohio State brings up front. But Penn State might have given Thorson a blueprint for opening up the Buckeye defense with how they used Trace McSorley last week. McSorley has grown into a talented rusher, and the Nittany Lions made sure to create plenty of chances for him to get yards with his feet; he finished the game with 19 rushes for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Thorson is very much capable of the same kind of line. He’s second on the team in rushing attempts and yards, averaging just over five yards per carry. If the Buckeyes can shut down standout wide receiver Austin Carr, the most important pass-catching threat on the roster, the Wildcats’ QB might have to start making plays with his feet. Recent play suggests he’ll find at least a little room to do so.
What to watch for
That said, the Buckeyes have so many weapons on the defensive line that things aren’t going to be easy for Thorson, regardless of whether or not Carr can find some separation against one of the country’s best secondaries. Ohio State creates havoc on defense at one of the best clips in the country, and Tyquan Lewis is no small part of that.
This holds true whether the Buckeyes are in the traditional two-DE, two-DT set or in the Rushmen package, a row of four DEs used against opposing teams in obvious passing situations. The Buckeyes are actually a bit more stout against opposing offenses in the traditional look—they’re ranked No. 7 and No. 3 in defensive S&P+ on first and second downs, respectively, and just 54th on third down—but they’ve made hay in both formations. Lewis kicks inside when they’re in the Rushmen set; given how often the defense is likely to force Northwestern’s middling (No. 75 S&P+) offense into third-and-longs, Lewis is going to have plenty of chances from either look.
The bottom line here is that the Wildcats’ offensive line hasn’t shown enough ability to keep Thorson upright for this game to feel at all worrisome, at least on the defensive side of the ball. Lewis, Nick Bosa, Robert Landers, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes...the list of players with the potential to make Northwestern’s day miserable is a long one, and that’s without even glancing at the secondary. Look for the Wildcats’ QB to find himself on the ground a few times in this one.