Now that the appetizers have been consumed, it’s time for the main course on Ohio State’s non-conference menu we’ve all been waiting for: Oklahoma.
Despite the Sooners’ week one loss to Houston, Saturday’s game still has the feel of a prizefight, and will have the atmosphere to match. In terms of Ohio State regular season non-conference games, it certainly feels like the biggest one since USC came to Columbus in 2009.
With each program’s blueblood status, this is a matchup on the level of Notre Dame - Michigan, except between two teams that have actually won meaningful games the last decade. Add in the possible playoff implications, and it should be one hell of a time.
Interestingly enough, the Buckeyes are also a rare road favorite in Norman:
Per @DavidPurdum, Ohio State opens as 3-point favorite over Oklahoma. The first time since 2000 (Nebraska) the Sooners have been a home dog— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) September 11, 2016
Lose 16 starters from last season’s team, stroll into Oklahoma as the first road favorite in 16 years. I think Urban Meyer might be good at this college football stuff, guys.
With all that in mind, here are five things to watch in the Buckeyes’ titanic showdown against Oklahoma:
One of the more frustrating features of last season’s offense was its slow starts. Ohio State had a tough time finding an early groove, which was most evident during their opening drives. The Buckeyes scored a touchdown in only three of 13 opportunities, including none in conference play. It was a poor trend that unfortunately has continued in 2016.
Thanks to Bowling Green’s pick six to open the season, defenses have scored more points on Ohio State opening drives than their own offense has (7-3). Needless to say, that’s not going to cut it against a team the quality of Oklahoma.
An opening drive touchdown won’t necessarily make or break the game, but at the very least could quell what’s sure to be an electric Memorial Stadium crowd. Whether that means a little less read option into a stacked box, or more Curtis Samuel touches to open the game, a quick start from the offense would be a nice change.
Sticking with the offense, how far are Ohio State’s coordinators willing to get out of their comfort zone to test the OU defense, especially early on? Despite Tulsa consistently loading the box, Ohio State was content to run the ball up the middle, with little-to-no success. The run game eventually got going — thanks to some help from Samuel — but running in the first half was quite the struggle. You can bet Oklahoma will mimic Tulsa’s tactics — as Meyer aptly noted earlier this week — so moving the ball may hinge on the offense’s ability to produce explosive passing plays against a vulnerable secondary.
Through two games, Oklahoma’s defense has been quite generous, giving up seven passing plays over 20 yards, and four over 30. Against Houston, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops chose to sell out against the run with good results, but paid for it on the back end. The Cougars averaged nearly 14 yards per completion, and did major damage on roll-outs, deep strikes and back shoulder fades.
In the likely event that Stoops focuses on the Ohio State running game, JT Barrett and his cast of receivers must make their secondary pay. If they’re able to make good on these opportunities and force the defense to respect the whole field, it should leave things open for the ground game to thrive. If not, the Ohio State offense could look a lot like what we saw in 2015.
Of the 52 tackles for loss by the defensive line last season, 50 came from Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Adolphus Washington, and Tommy Schutt. Injury luck was also kind, and allowed them the luxury of using an extremely small rotation for nearly the whole season. With the departures of Bosa, Washington, and Schutt, as well as Tracy Sprnkle’s season ending injury, much has changed, and the defense has opted for more of a committee approach.
Against Tulsa, 10 defensive linemen saw the field in the first half, and six of them already have at least one tackle for loss this season. They’ve been efficient against the run thus far, and have only given up four runs of 10-plus yards. The rotation has not only showcased how young the group is — seven of the 10 have freshman eligibility — but also their sky-high potential. That potential will be put to the test by Oklahoma’s offense.
Not only is this by far the best offensive line they’ve faced this season, but they’re also tasked with defending arguably the best running back duo in the country in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. And while both we’re only given a combined 12 carries versus Houston, you can bet their workload will be much heavier against the mostly unproven Ohio State defensive line.
Given the proficiency of the opponent, it will be interesting to see whether Ohio State’s preference for a larger rotation continues, or if the coaches put the clamps on throwing too many freshmen into the fire. Regardless of the strategy they choose, the line holds the key to slowing down the Sooners. If they play well enough on standard downs to keep Oklahoma’s talented backs in check, the secondary might feast on 2nd and 3rd downs.
You don’t need me to explain how important it is for an offense to avoid too many passing downs. The more third-and-longs an offense finds itself in, the lower the odds are of them being successful. This is particularly true for the Oklahoma offense:
If Ohio State can replicate the success Houston and other defenses have had putting Mayfield into those situations, the pass rush and secondary should thrive.
Despite not getting to quarterbacks as much as we thought they would before the season, the Buckeyes are still above average in passing downs sack rate, and it’s possible that co-defensive coordinators Greg Schiano and Luke Fickell have been playing coy the first two weeks with their minimal blitzing. At any rate, the more passing situations Ohio State forces, the more likely that things like this happen.
It feels like it’s been a while since Ohio State’s played a non-conference game like this, doesn’t it? Given the history of both programs, it’s a great matchup under any circumstance, but the current stakes take it to another level. Non-conference games don’t get much bigger than this.
After losing to Houston to open the season, Oklahoma has no margin for error. Not only would a loss probably mean curtains for their playoff hopes, but history isn’t on their side even with a win. Since the Big 12 adopted a round-robin format in 2011, no team has gone undefeated in conference play, and the Sooners’ still have the rest of their conference slate left. For a team that came into the season with such high hopes, that’s a precarious spot to be in before September is over. While not as drastic, there’s a lot at stake for Ohio State, as well.
With so much of last season’s team gone, Saturday marks the first big time game for a ton of important contributors. It’s not crazy to wonder whether the moment will be too big for such an inexperienced team, at least this early in the season. It’s a lot to ask of any team to go into Norman and win, but doing it at night, and with a group this young? Ohio State still hasn’t lost a road game in Meyer’s four seasons, and keeping the streak alive after Saturday would be quite the accomplishment given the circumstances.
Ohio State is essentially playing with house money on Saturday. There’s no shame in losing to Oklahoma in Norman, and ultimately, we’ve seen them rally from a early season loss and make the playoff before, so it’s not like that would be out of the question, anyway. This game also doesn’t have any effect on their Big Ten goals, either, so that’s still intact no matter what.
If they do manage to win, anything and everything is on the table. Regardless, we don’t get the privilege of watching too many games like this, so take time and enjoy the spectacle.