Over the past month of games, the No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes have outscored their opponents 210 to 42 for an average of 52.5 to 10.5 per game. With blowouts like these, it is sometimes difficult to find anything of substance to glean from the wins, especially when the starters play sparingly in the second half.
With that in mind, Saturday’s game against the Maryland Terrapins seemed to provide a more definitive glimpse at the impact of Ohio State’s new offensive coaches, Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day, on quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeye offense.
However, there are still questions about what the OSU coaching staff will do following a disappointing injury, and what the heck was up with the special teams.
1. J.T. Barrett has dramatically improved as a passer following the debacle against Oklahoma
In the four games since the Buckeyes were embarrassed at The ‘Shoe by the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners, Barrett and the offense have morphed into something that resembles the unit that many Buckeye fans anticipated to start the season.
However, when playing Army, UNLV and Rutgers, it is difficult to pinpoint just how much of their success was due to tangible improvement, and how much was due to subpar opponents.
However, against Maryland, at least a top-60 team, the improved performance from Barrett was much clearer to see. It wasn’t that he feasted on lesser talent (although that did happen), it was how he feasted; with unexpected arm strength, impressive anticipation, patience in the pocket, and touch when needed.
On the first drive of the game, Barrett was able to thread the needle to find Johnnie Dixon for a big gain. On the play, you can see the Maryland DB jump the route, anticipating an interception. However, Barrett put so much zip on the ball (not something that this QB is known for), that he was able to sneak the ball through for a 35-yard gain.
In addition to his increasing arm strength, Barrett also seems to be improving on his ability to put the ball in the optimum place for his receivers (and only his receivers) to come down with the ball. Later in the first quarter, Barrett fired a dart into the back of the endzone, high and in front of Binjimen Victor, where no Terp defender had a chance to get in the way.
The fifth-year senior also showed a few glimpses of the back-shoulder throw that was a big part of the Ohio State offense in the 2014 National Championship run. Since then, Barrett, as well as Cardale Jones, never seemed to have the confidence in the wide receivers to go back to it. It seems like Dixon, Victor, Austin Mack, Parris Campbell, et al. might be finally earning that trust.
Also of note, Barrett has thrown only a single interception on the season, against OU (he typed knocking on wood). Finally, Barrett’s patience in the pocket was markedly different against Maryland than it has been over the last two seasons. In the past, if his first (or maybe second if we were lucky) receiver wasn’t open, he would look to run.
Now, Barrett did look impressive running against the Terps, picking up 59 yards on eight carries and a touchdown, but he also showed an uncanny willingness to let routes develop and receivers get open.
In addition to the reemergence of the back-shoulder throws, we also saw the new coaching staff open up the playbook to include multiple types of screen passes, multiple wheel routes, and even a reverse against Maryland.
If Wilson and Day are able to discover the plays that can accentuate what this group of skill players does best, the sky’s the limit for the offense in the second half of the season.
Now, I do not think that this means that Barrett is now the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, or that he has any legitimate chance at an NFL career, but if he can hang on to these improved fundamentals as the back half of the season gets more difficult, it will go a long way to allowing OSU to get back into the Big Ten and National Championship pictures.
2. Kevin Wilson and Greg Studrawa are going to have to rebuild the offensive line
As this past fall camp wound down, the world learned that red-shirt sophomore Branden Bowen had been named a surprise starter on Ohio State’s offensive line from an unusual source.
In the first five-plus games of the season, OSU’s right guard has been a steady part of the offensive line. However, with the news that he has a fractured fibula and tibia, and that he is out for the season, that raises questions as to whether or not the O-line can hold up with a new configuration.
Junior Isaiah Prince has had a rough go of it at right tackle so far this season, and sophomore Michael Jordan has been up and down. Despite the offensive line issues, coming into the Maryland game, the Buckeyes led the Big Ten in rushing yards with 238.8 yards per game, and Bowen was a big part of that. If they are going to be able to continue that success in the ground game, and to give Barrett the time he needs in the pocket, the unit will need to be solid come Oct. 28 when the No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions come to town.
So, does that mean that center Billy Price moves back to guard, the position he’s played until this year? In that case, backup center Brady Taylor could move into the starting lineup.
Sophomore Matthew Burrell came into the game in Bowen’s stead at guard against Maryland, and Meyer seemed to give him the leg up for next week’s game against the Huskers. Postgame, the head coach said, “Next man up right now looks like Matt Burrell.”
However, that “right now” seems to leave open the door for changes in the future. With a game against Nebraska next week, and an open date before PSU, the coaching staff has the time and flexibility to figure out the best grouping for the rest of the season, and no matter how good Barrett looks, or how many stud running backs OSU has, it won’t matter if the offensive line can’t keep opposing defenses out of the backfield.
3. The special teams had a
bad day really bad day tremendously, embarrassingly bad day, but it is likely an anomaly
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: that was one of, if not, the worst special teams performance that I have seen in my three decades of substantive Ohio State fandom. Between awful kickoff coverage (including Ty Johnson’s 100-yard return TD), kicking the ball out of bounds, allowing a field goal to be blocked, a straight-up missed FG, a botched extra point, and a shanked punt, I’m not sure how special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs’ was able to keep his cool on the sideline on Saturday afternoon.
However, let’s put this in context. That was literally the perfect storm of special teams suckatude, and there is next to no chance that anything will even approach that performance again this season, or perhaps our lifetimes.
If you look at the first five games of the season, many of the specialty units that dropped a massive doodoo burger on Saturday have been some of the best in the Big Ten.
Before the Maryland game, Sean Nuernberger was perfect on the season on both field goals (7-for-7) and extra points (26-for-26). OSU had held opponents to just 15.67 yards per kickoff return, second only to Northwestern’s 15.55 in the conference.
While the much ballyhooed freshman Drue Chrisman is not yet lived up to the Aussie legend that is Cameron Johnston, his 43.39 yards per punt was respectable, and good enough for sixth in the conference coming into Saturday. It also bears remembering that this stat is often prejudiced by Ohio State’s stellar defense giving the offense a short field to work with, and not much room to punt into.
And not for nothing, the Buckeyes ranked first in the conference with 32.89 yards per kickoff return. So, despite the cavalcade of craptasticness against Maryland, there is no reason to expect anything approaching that again this season.
That being typed, I can also guarantee that all of the special teams units are in for one of the most soul-sucking film sessions and hardest weeks of practice they have ever been forced to endure.