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Ohio State’s key to beating Oklahoma? Put Baker Mayfield in passing downs

Oklahoma has an excellent QB, but he’s not unbeatable. And Ohio State may have the personnel to make him sweat.

Houston v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Ohio State has passed it’s first two defensive tests of the season with flying colors. Against Bowling Green and Tulsa, two high-flying, fast-paced, multi-faceted offenses that ranked near the best in the country when it came to advanced stats, the Buckeyes gave up a whopping zero touchdowns.

Even if Tulsa and Bowling Green dramatically regress on offense this season, that’s still an impressive accomplishment. If absolutely clobbering cupcakes was easy, everybody would do it. As any Ohio State fan who remembers the Jim Tressel era knows, it doesn’t always work that way.

But the cupcake portion of the schedule is over, at least for now. The Buckeyes face a much stiffer challenge with Oklahoma, paced by their electric quarterback, Baker Mayfield.

A bit of the shine may have been lost on this game, thanks to Oklahoma’s early loss at Houston. But that loss doesn’t make Mayfield less of a dynamic player. Small sample size, sure, but Mayfield is still completing 71.7% of his passes this season, good for five touchdowns, and no picks. He completed 68.1% of his passes last season, throwing up a ridiculous 36/7 TD to INT ratio, en route to Oklahoma’s somewhat surprising Big 12 title and run to the College Football Playoff.

Mayfield has mobility, arm strength, and the ability to make good, efficient decisions with the football. He’s not a huge dude, but he’s certainly capable of stretching Ohio State’s defense in a way that Bowling Green and Tulsa are not. Plus, it’s not like he’s on an island, since he has two of the better running backs in college football, Samaje Perine, and Joe Mixon, behind him.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to look at the stats and realize that Oklahoma’s offense is potentially very dangerous. But those same stats also show a potential weakness, and one that the Buckeyes may be the particular personnel to exploit.

Ohio State needs to find ways to put Baker Mayfield in passing downs.

Sure, that’s the key for nearly every defense, but the data is particularly striking when it comes to Oklahoma. Last season, per S&P+, Oklahoma had the seventh best offense in the entire country. Their rushing and passing offense were in the top 20. But when you isolated their performance to passing downs (second/third-and-long), they fall to 61st, decidedly average.

This year, while again, using a limited sample size, the differences are even more stark. The Sooners are fifth in standard downs offense, and 27th in explosiveness from standard downs. But in passing down situations, Oklahoma ranks 83rd, and has one of the worst explosiveness rankings (118th).

This makes some sense. Oklahoma’s wideouts are a little more inexperienced this season, and they’ve lost mega-wideout Sterling Shepard. These situations also help take Mixon and Perine out of the play, putting even more of the load on Mayfield.

We’ve written earlier that the key to winning this matchup rests with Ohio State’s inexperienced defensive line. It might be the position group that has the weakest depth, as far as recruiting rankings are concerned, and their performance will go a long way towards insuring Ohio State isn’t giving up six yards a carry, and that their tackles eat enough blocks to let their defensive ends cause some havoc in the backfield.

Sacks may go a long way towards helping keep Oklahoma in those situations. More mobile QBs tend to have higher sack rates, and Oklahoma has been no exception, especially in passing situations. Mayfield was sacked 14 times on first down last season, and has already been sacked five times this season (Barrett has been sacked once so far).

The Buckeyes have not produced a pass rush even close to what was demonstrated last year, but it’s possible Ohio State was scheming conservatively over the last two weeks. Perhaps the Buckeyes get a little more aggressive, showcasing the speed of their defensive backfield with some corner or safety blitz packages, or Ohio State’s young talent pushes through to produce a little more havoc.

The Buckeyes will probably be able to score some points against Oklahoma, but the Sooners have myriad ways they can attack Ohio State’s defense. The Buckeyes have been excellent on that side of the ball so far. If they can force Mayfield to beat them in passing situations over the course of the game, they have an excellent chance of grabbing a huge win before Big Ten play.