Ohio State’s season has gotten a lot less fun in a hurry.
On the heels of a last-minute upset loss to Penn State, the Buckeyes eked out a disappointing 24-20 win over the Northwestern Wildcats, a team not traditionally known for its football prowess. It was an ignominious finish, even in victory, and the cracks that started to show a few weeks ago are now readily apparent for this young team. Whether it’s in-game coaching adjustments, Curtis Samuel’s face appearing on milk cartons around Columbus, or a passing game that’s been uninspiring at best, there seems to be no shortage of things that need to be fixed if the Buckeyes hope to contend with Michigan for the Big Ten crown.
And yet. Ohio State is still 7-1, with wins over very good Oklahoma and Wisconsin teams, and they’re hanging in at No. 6 in the new College Football Playoff rankings. Those rankings are purely academic, as far as the Buckeyes are concerned. Their playoff picture is pretty clear: win all the way out, and you’re likely in. That entails beating a Michigan team that has looked pretty much invincible in 2016, as well as (probably) beating either Nebraska or Wisconsin a second time (assuming they beat the Huskers on Saturday) when the Big Ten title game rolls around.
Otherwise? The dream of cracking the final four is dead, barring some bizarre confluence of circumstances, possibly involving Nick Saban’s email server
or the NCAA’s tax returns revealing that it’s not paying players anything.
Before any of that happens, though, they’ll need to beat a Nebraska team that’s looked awfully good in 2016. And that might start and end with the play of Ohio State’s No. 1 cornerback.
Name: Gareon Conley
Weight: 195 lbs.
Line: 14.5 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 passes broken up
After looking unbeatable in the season’s first few weeks, the Ohio State pass defense has looked slightly more human of late. Northwestern’s Austin Carr, by most measures the best receiver in the Big Ten this year, shredded the Buckeye secondary for 158 yards on just eight catches; the Wildcats finished with 258 yards and a touchdown through the air in that game.
Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong looks like he’s having the best season of his career, and he has the one-loss Huskers in the Big Ten West’s top spot. Conley, who’s having a very solid year, will have a chance to shake that all up.
Nebraska currently sits at No. 24 in passing S&P+, which is at least a little bit surprising, given than Armstrong’s numbers—11 TDs to 7 INTs, 53% completion rate—are decidedly average. But there are two things working in the Huskers’ favor when it comes to the passing game.
1.) A clean jersey. Tommy Armstrong has been sacked just six times this season, and that’s insane. (By comparison, NW’s Clayton Thorson had been sacked 19 times heading into last week’s game, and J.T. Barrett’s gone down 12 times.) The Husker O-line has done an incredible job keeping their QB upright, and it’s paid dividends. Given that the Buckeyes were only able to sack Thorson once, they’re going to find it tough sledding to get to Armstrong at all.
2.) Extracting value from limited success. The Nebraska passing game isn’t lighting the world on fire, but their No. 13 passing IsoPPP rating tells us that when they do execute a successful play, they derive a ton of value from it. For an extreme oversimplification of this complicated statistical measure, imagine a baseball player who strikes out on 7/8ths of his at-bats and then hits grand slams the other 1/8th of the time. Armstrong isn’t completing a huge percentage of his passes, but he’s connected for TDs of 72 and 63 yards, and has completed passes of 35 yards or more to seven different receivers. The Huskers might only get a few big plays per game, but they regularly leverage them into points or great field position.
What to watch for
Given how difficult it’s going to be for the Buckeyes to threaten Armstrong with sacks, Urban Meyer will need to lean heavily on his secondary to keep the Huskers off the board. That starts with Gareon Conley. Nebraska’s best wide receivers, target machine Stanley Morgan, Jr. and home run threat Alonzo Moore, could give Ohio State a handful, especially given the weaknesses that Northwestern was able to exploit. It’ll be on Conley to work against Morgan and Moore downfield.
Of course, that option might be taken away from him by the coaches. The Buckeyes repeatedly went into a soft zone look against Northwestern that resulted in the Big Ten’s top receiver, Austin Carr, getting friendly looks in the open field against Ohio State’s third corner, Damon Arnette. Arnette, who made a beautiful interception in the first quarter on a tipped ball, otherwise struggled in coverage for much of the game. That’s unsurprising, given that he was repeatedly matched up against an NFL-caliber wideout; the blame here is really on the coaching staff, who seemed unwilling to adjust and have Conley or Marshon Lattimore permanently tracking Carr. It’s not like Conley doesn’t have the chops to take on that responsibility, either:
Ohio State CB Gareon Conley has allowed just 3 rec on 15 tgts for 50 yards on targets 10+ yds downfield.— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 27, 2016
Carr’s a slot receiver, meaning that he’s not your traditional downfield threat, but the Wildcats hit him all over the place, and he found the gaps in the zone with so much ease that the lack of changes in the play-calling felt kind of staggering.
Will the defensive staff learn from its mistakes against Northwestern when the Buckeyes play the Huskers? It’s hard to say. The kicking-and-screaming reticence to give Curtis Samuel more touches and the total lack of in-game adjustments all season point to a philosophy that’s so firmly entrenched as to be unchangeable. But Urban Meyer is still a hell of a coach, and there’s no mystery as to why his assistants get tabbed for top positions year after year. With that much football IQ in one room, you have to think that something is going to markedly improve sooner or later.