After a month of inconsistent play, the Ohio State Buckeyes opened the most important month of a season with a bang, destroying Nebraska by 59 points, and showing their high potential in the process.
For the first time since Oklahoma, (Rutgers doesn’t count as a real team, obviously) the Buckeyes played a complete game, receiving major contributions in both phases offensively, while the defense dominated from the get-go. It couldn’t have come at a better time, what with a highly anticipated game with Michigan looming, and their playoff hopes still very much alive.
As they head to College Park for a showdown with the Maryland Terrapins, Ohio State has an excellent chance to build on that consistency and head into the final stretch of the regular season on a roll, much like other Urban Meyer-coached teams have in the past.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch for as Ohio State takes on Maryland:
Dubbed ‘Red Ops,’ the Terps are going all red everything in a look said to be “Inspired by the engineering in reinforced concrete.” Buy that company line if you want, but the rest of us know what’s really going on here:
It’s debatable whether consuming Mountain Dew Code Red or Maryland football is worse for your health, but what isn’t is that these uniforms are gloriously hideous, and I can’t wait to see them in action. Also, please remember these the next time Ohio State chooses to wear an alternate uniform, and thank Gene Smith for having a good relationship with Nike.
To put it bluntly, the Maryland run defense is bad. Since holding Purdue to 10 yards on 27 carries to open conference play, the Terps have given up an average of 6.2 yards per carry, 311 yards rushing, and 3.6 rushing touchdowns per game. As if those raw numbers weren’t enough, a deeper dive illuminates just exactly how bad it’s been, and why the Ohio State ground game should cruise on Saturday.
The Terps enter Saturday as the nation’s second worst run defense (127th in Rushing S&P+), are inefficient (117th in Rushing Success Rate), get demolished at the point of attack (128th in Adjusted Line Yards), and rarely find themselves in opposing backfields (92nd in stuff rate). 350 rushing yards for an Ohio State ground game that ranks in the top three nationally in every one of those categories probably isn’t out of the question on Saturday.
The Buckeyes still struggle to generate long runs at a high clip (81st in Rushing IsoPPP), but should churn out 5-7 yard carries with regularity. Ohio State has made a point the last few weeks to improve it’s passing game, but this defense is too bad against the run to not just bludgeon until they can stop it. Expect lots of Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel, and Demario McCall, en route to what should be a huge day on the ground.
Speaking of McCall, the shifty playmaker from North Ridgeville, Ohio, looks to have found a role in the offense after gaining 73 yards on 16 carries against Nebraska. Granted, most of those numbers were in garbage time, but McCall showed the big play ability —and elusiveness— Ohio State has lacked, outside of Curtis Samuel. His emergence, as well as the rise of a K.J. Hill, could mean a new level for the offense going forward.
After sitting out two games with a high ankle sprain, freshman wide receiver K.J. Hill has provided a spark for the passing game in recent weeks. Hill had a crucial 34 yard catch-and-run late against Northwestern, and followed that up with the best game of his young career, catching five passes for 66 yards last week. While Noah Brown appears to be J.T. Barrett’s favorite efficiency target, Hill looks to be the big play threat out wide that’s been missing from the offense for a season and a half. Receiver play has been an issue all years, but a healthy Hill may end up being the best of the bunch.
The emergence of both won’t stop the usual suspects from getting the ball this week, but it’ll be interesting to see if the staff finally trusts them enough to involve them early on, rather than in garbage time. Each has flashed the ability to provide big plays, and could be the keys to the Buckeyes reaching their potential ceiling on offense.
Players like McCall and Hill are still looking to find their way, but linebacker Raekwon McMillan is almost done leaving his brilliant mark on the program. His overall numbers may be down this year, but McMillan remains the heart of the defense that appears to be rounding into one of the nation’s best:
“The No. 1 thing is he’s not selfish,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “He understands the true meaning of leadership. Leaders make others around them better, and sometimes that means not focusing on yourself and not worrying about the stats and those things. We all want them, they all look at them, but the reality is, you don’t let that shape how you go about your business because it can bring you down sometimes.
Outside of maybe Tyquan Lewis, McMillan was the only sure thing the defense had coming into the season, and has still been a force despite offenses scheming around him, especially in the running game. Even with the extra attention from blockers, he still ranks third on the team in tackles, and has adjusted by destroying opposing passing games.
McMillan has batted passes that directly led to interceptions the past two weeks, and in the case of the Nebraska game, resulted in a pick six that set the tone for the rest of the night. The mark of a great player is being able to find ways to make plays, even when the opponent is trying to limit you, and McMillan has done that to perfection this season.
While the defense is on the field Saturday, take some time watch one of the best linebackers in program history do his thing, and appreciate how much he means to not only the defense, but the program in general.
Lost amid the angst over the offense’s play in October was the regression from the defense. After starting the season with one of the stingiest groups in the country, the Buckeyes fell off in October:
Wisconsin, Penn State, and Northwestern kept them off balance in different ways, and their struggles were just as responsible for the Buckeyes’ October lull as the playcalling, passing game, and blocking were. If the Nebraska game was any indication, though, they may be hitting their peak at the right time.
Even accounting for Tommy Armstrong’s early exit, the Silver Bullets were dominant, holding the Cornhuskers to their lowest yards per play output (3.5) since 2014, while returning two interceptions for touchdowns. It was arguably the best they’ve played all season, and a reminder that the defense ultimately holds the key to how far this team will go.
This particular Ohio State team is at their best when the defense sets the tone, much like they did against Nebraska, and to a lesser extent, Oklahoma. In those games, the Buckeyes stuffed the run on standard downs, then leaned on one of the best secondaries in the country to smother receivers and make plays on passing downs.
It’s a recipe that led to early confidence, good field position for the offense, and even a few points for the defense, themselves. While Maryland’s offense isn’t anything special (58th in Offensive S&P+), the Terps have an excellent ground game, and should test the Buckeyes ability to stick to that winning formula.
If Ohio State is able to limit big plays on the ground, the secondary could be in for a big day, leading to another step in the right direction for the defense overall. It’s definitely OK to still want to see improvement from the offense, but if the defense is able to repeat last week’s performance, it’ll be a good indicator that this teams’ championship aspirations are very real heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.