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Jerome Baker, Ohio State’s rush defense key to shutting down Maryland

The Terps are, well, not great. But they can run!

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Maryland Terrapins are 5-4 so far in 2016. Barring a major catastrophe for fans of the Scarlet and Gray, the Big Ten’s preeminent coastal franchise is going to drop to 5-5 on the year. This scenario is certainly important to fans of both teams, and a blowout by Ohio State (or a failure to engineer one) could have major implications for next week’s playoff rankings. But this is less important than something related to the broader context of football, and our sporting culture at large. If you’ll indulge me:

Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker, besides being a fine football player, is by all accounts an exemplary human being. Since high school, he has worked actively among teammates and peers to bring issues of consent to the fore in the locker room. We live in a world in which being talented at something (that is, after all, only a game) can serve as a shield for all types of evil behavior, not least of which is sexual assault. Baker, a college sophomore, has demonstrated a keen understanding of football’s complicity in this horrifying social problem; more importantly, he has demonstrated a commitment to being part of the solution.

This autumn, and a few autumns ago, college football presented us with sensational examples of large-scale institutional failure. In both instances, the schools in question did not act preventatively, proactively, or remotely morally in response to sex crimes related to their football programs. When the hammer fell, it seemed as though it was only because the weight of public opinion was so heavy that it could not be held back any longer. But punitive justice, as much as it slakes our collective need for revenge, can’t undo the wrongs that it attempts to redress. What we can do—what we must do—is to be proactive in these matters. Jerome Baker is a football player; he’s also a shining example of said proactivity in the face of a culture that has toxic roots. He should be commended for it.

Now, on to the football.

The stats

Name: Jerome Baker

Number: 17

Position: OLB

Year: Sophomore

Height: 6’1

Weight: 225 lbs.

Line: 39.5 tackles, 6 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery

Baker, who entered the season behind Dante Booker on the depth chart, has seized upon the opportunity granted him by Booker’s injury to emerge as one of the best players on the Buckeye defense. Baker has quietly amassed the second-most tackles on the team, and has been party to some of the more memorable moments of the season so far.

The sophomore linebacker has a nose for the ball, and is both fast and disciplined moving sideways to contain opposing rushers. Ohio State will need him to do just that against Maryland on Saturday.

Opposition research

Maryland has been so-so at just about everything in 2016. The one thing they clearly do well is run the football. The Terrapins are ranked ninth in the country by rushing S&P+, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. That includes their No. 14 ranking in rushing IsoPPP, which tells us that they’re pretty dang explosive on the ground.

There are a pair of key players that Buckeye fans need to concern themselves with. Freshman tailback Lorenzo Harrison leads the team with 88 carries for 633 yards and five TDs on the season; his complement, sophomore Ty Johnson, has 635 yards and four TDs on just 69 carries. Johnson did leave Maryland’s game against Michigan on Saturday with an injury in the fourth quarter, so it remains to be seen if he’ll do any damage against the Buckeyes. If he can go, watch out.

(Speaking of watching out, the Terrapins are going to be wearing these bad boys for Saturday’s game, which are, uhhh...very red. In what will almost certainly be the most controversial portion of this entire article, I should confess that I actually love Maryland’s more common state flag unis—the ones with the checks and crosses and like eight different colors. Can’t explain it.)

What to watch for

The Maryland run game is not predicated upon power. Instead, the Terrapins employ a shifty pair of backs who are talented at getting outside the tackles and breaking big gains downfield. The good news for Ohio State fans is that these are precisely the kinds of runs that Jerome Baker seems built to stop. Baker’s size, speed, and ability to read plays make him a unique threat to opposing rushers; he’s a candidate for a backfield stuff on every run to his side. (As a team, the Buckeyes are second in the country when it comes to run-stuffing.)

The defense has fallen off when it comes to explosive run plays, against which the Buckeyes rank just 77th nationally, but there’s no reason to think they’ll get gashed by the Terrapins on Saturday. Maryland has little to boast of in the way of a passing game (52nd nationally), and regular starting QB Perry Hills was forced out of the Michigan game with an injury in the second quarter. Whether or not he’s healthy enough to take on the Buckeyes remains to be seen. The same injury has forced him out of three different games already this season; when he has been on the field, the Maryland o-line has given up a whopping 21 sacks. With Hills and Ty Johnson in doubt, Maryland might have to lean heavily on Lorenzo Harrison to string together any semblance of an offense against the Buckeyes.