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Ohio State barely beats Northwestern. Let's talk about it.Posted by Land-Grant Holy Land - For Ohio State fans on Saturday, October 29, 2016
After last week’s crushing loss to Penn State, the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes rebounded with a hard-fought 24-20 win over an incredibly game Northwestern squad on Saturday.
Though OSU dominated the time of possession, J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes were never able to get the ball downfield. The explosive plays that highlighted the early season slate seem to have disappeared for this offense. However, the offense was extremely balanced, racking up 223 yards through the air and 210 on the ground.
The story of the game was nearly Northwestern’s ability to convert on third-down. NU quarterback Clayton Thorson’s offense was eight for 16 in such situations, often because of the playmaking ability of wide receiver Austin Carr.
After moving the ball inside Ohio State territory on the first drive of the game, an official review wiped out a big completion to WR Carr that would have put Northwestern into scoring position less than a minute into the game. The OSU defense held strong from there.
Following the subsequent Wildcat punt, Ohio State marched 94 yards on nine plays in under three minutes, mostly through the air, to score on their first possession. After having to wait for more than a quarter to get his first touch last week, H-back Curtis Samuel caught a pass for a three-yard gain on the first offensive play from scrimmage. After a 15-yard reception was ruled down at the one by the replay official, running back Mike Weber finished the drive by punching it into the endzone. The touchdown was the first on a Buckeye opening drive of the season.
After the kick-off and a 16-yard run by Northwestern’s John Moten IV, Thorson’s 1st down pass was deflected by middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan and intercepted by cornerback Damon Arnedt, setting up the Buckeyes at their own 49 yardline.
On the ensuing drive, the Buckeyes drove into the red-zone, but a third down end-around to Dontre Wilson was snuffed out, forcing a Tyler Durbin fieldgoal to extend the lead to 10-0. Technically, the 33-yard FG was the walk-on’s 11th in as many tries this season, as last week’s block was credited to the team.
After converting a 4th and 3 in the red-zone earlier in the drive, Thorson plowed his way into the endzone on the first play of the second quarter to bring the score to 10-7. However, after Barrett went through his progressions on a 3rd and 12 from NU’s 36, he found a wide-open tight-end Marcus Baugh, who was able to hold onto the pass for the first down. On the next play, Weber bounced outside and raced to the endzone for a 23-yard TD, upping the score to 17-7.
On the next drive, on second down from their own 45, Thorson gashed the Ohio State defense for a 35-yard run, which led to a 23-yard Jack Mitchell fieldgoal to cut the Buckeye lead to 17-10. However, the drive was more evidence of how much the Wildcat offense has progressed since a 9-7 loss to Illinois State. In the first half, NU accounted for 218 yards (89 rushing, 129 passing).
In the final two minutes of the first half, Urban Meyer exhausted his timeouts on defense to ensure another possession for the Buckeyes. However, after back-to-back incompletions, OSU was forced to punt. Even though NU’s Jared McGee got a hand on the ball, the blocked punt didn’t lead to points. However, for the second week in a row, punter Cameron Johnston had a kick blocked, a previously rare sight from the Aussie.
Concerned about Northwestern stud WR Carr, the defense was content to rush four and drop into coverage for most of the first half. Nonetheless, Carr accounted for 66 yards on five receptions before the intermission, including a handful of impressive sideline grabs.
After three consecutive drives ended in a punt to start the second half, Thorson hit Carr for 30 yards to move Northwestern to their 46 yardline. After a holding call, Northwestern picked up 16 on a 3-and-18 to get into OSU territory. Rushing just four, Ohio State dropped everyone else deep into coverage, leaving vulnerable the underside of the defense for Justin Jackson to pick up significant yardage. After picking up six on the next play to extend the drive, Carr gained 35, leading to a two-yard TD catch for Garrett Dickerson to even the score at 17-17.
After five straight punts for the Ohio State offense, Barrett found K.J. Hill for a 34-yard gain on a second-and-1 from NU’s 44. Two plays later, he handed the ball off to Samuel, who sliced through the defensive line for a three-yard TD, to reclaim the lead 24-17 with 9:43 remaining in the game.
On 3rd-and-7 from Ohio State’s 44, Thorson kept it on the zone-read to pickup 18. Three plays later, on 3rd-and-14 with Nick Bosa bearing down on him, Thorson hits a crossing Carr for 27, to move the Wildcats down to the Ohio State three. However, the Buckeyes tightened up to force a 33-yard FG to make the score 24-20 with three and a half left.
On the following drive, Barrett hit a streaking Noah Brown for a 16-yard game on 3rd-and-8. Later on the drive on third down, Barrett scrambled 35 yards down the NU 22 to essentially ice the game.
3 things we learned:
1.) Ohio State coaches can get creative, but only after losses.
Over the last three weeks, Ohio State’s offense has been vanilla, and that might be unfair to the flavor. However, against Northwestern, play-callers Ed Warinner and Tim Beck pulled out an end-around to Wilson, a reverse to Parris Campbell, and a few (unsuccessful) speed options. So, after weeks of zone-read bludgeoning, for some reason, the coaching staff decided to open up the playbook this week. This has become something of a pattern; after bizarrely conservative play calling led to a loss against Michigan State last year, derailing a chance at back-to-back National Titles, the offense opened up in the following two weeks outscoring No. 12 Michigan and No. 8 Notre Dame by a combined 86-41.
The offensive playcalling wasn’t nearly as exciting as it was early in the season, but the Northwestern game, especially in the first half, proved that those plays were still on the call-sheet. With games against Nebraska and Michigan still to come, the Buckeyes can’t expect to run the straight-forward, predictable offense, if they want to meet their postseason expectations.
2.) The Ohio State coaching staff does not have faith in their players one-on-one.
On both sides of the ball, it became painfully evident as the game progressed that the Buckeye coaches did not think that either their offensive or defensive playmakers could handle Northwestern one-on-one. On defense, the line was continually left alone to supply pressure against five and six-man O-lines, in order to allow as many defenders to cover the pass. Clearly, it didn’t work as for the second week in a row, an OSU opponent put up a season-high passing total (245 from PSU, 258 from NU). Instead, the lack of a pass-rush allowed Thorson to pick apart the Buckeye defense for much of the game.
The situation was similar on offense; though Barrett had a fairly efficient day passing (especially early), the offense only attempted one pass downfield, which was wildly over-thrown. Instead, the playcallers settled for the traditional inside runs and swing passes. When those plays are effective, as they were on the game’s first drive, they can result in clock-eating, methodical drives. But, that also requires the offense to string together more than a handful of positive plays in a row, which was tough to do against the stout defense Northwestern has become over the past month.
The lack of faith that Warriner and Beck have in OSU’s receivers to provide any kind of deep threat puts a ton of pressure on Barrett and the backs to magically turn small gains into big ones; something that is not easily done against quality opponents.
3.) Reports of J.T. Barrett’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, but the downfield passing game is still lacking.
After especially rough first halves the last three weeks, a certain contingent of Ohio State fans began to question whether Barrett was the right QB to lead this Buckeye team. Well, he is certainly not one of the best passers in Ohio State history. He isn’t the best running quarterback in school history either. However, when you combine both aspects of his game, and mix in his record setting stats, an argument can be made for him to be amongst the school’s Mount Rushmore of signal callers.
He showed his efficiency this week going 21 for 32 and 223 yards through the air, routinely going through his progressions to find the open man; a fact that was allowed because of improved offensive line play.
The staff also did not call on him to run nearly as much as they had throughout the season. In the first half, Barrett only rushed the ball on two designed runs and one keeper. He held onto the ball more in the second half, including that huge third down run late in the fourth quarter to effectively seal the victory.
While he might not have the arm of Cardale Jones, or athleticism of Braxton Miller, this team will only go as far as J.T. Barrett can take them. However, it would be nice to see Brown, Campbell, Wilson, Hill, Terry McLaurin, or literally anyone else provide a deep threat to open up the box for Weber, Samuel, and Barrett.