As has become a recent tradition after Ohio State losses, I took a quick walk around my neighborhood before I tried to write anything substantive, to help me process what happened.
There have been a few Ohio State losses recently, even blowout ones, but most of them felt relatively explainable. Maybe Ohio State just faced a team substantially better than them, like Clemson. Maybe their other structural flaws were exposed by a great team with an elite offensive weapon, like Oklahoma. Maybe bad luck and bad playcalling led to a close loss against a beatable opponent, like Michigan State.
But a complete and total asskicking by a team like Iowa? That’s new. Not just under Urban Meyer, but period. And fully diagnosing it feels more complicated of an endeavor.
Sure, there were familiar signs in Ohio State losses. J.T. Barrett, after an amazing performance against an excellent Penn State defense, played his worst game as a Buckeye, essentially giving away 14 points on bad interceptions, and forcing throws in the second half. And yes, Ohio State’s playcalling turned away from Ohio State’s running game and back to a familiar “J.T. Barrett left, J.T. Barrett right” scheme.
But Ohio State defense, one that had relatively bottled up Saquan Barkley the week before, was ripped to shreds by a statistically average (if that) Iowa offense. They gave up over 6 yards a carry, and let Nate Stanley throw five touchdown passes. Ohio State’s offense was poor in the second half, but they didn’t let Iowa’s offense score 48 points. This was a team meltdown, from execution, to gameplan, to mindset, to discipline. The works.
And now Ohio State finds themselves in an unfamiliar position. It’s early November and they’re out of the national title chase completely. Baring a stretch of upsets that would rival what we saw in 2007, they’re out of the playoff race. A team that entered the season with sky high expectations must now rapidly readjust.
And that makes what happens next so critical. Because it’s possible this game could go down as “one of those nights” that almost everybody has, no matter what talent level, when nothing goes your way and you get smacked around. Or Ohio State could let Iowa beat them multiple times, and let this year completely get away from them.
Virtually every other team in the country would love to switch places with Ohio State. The foundation of the program is still in excellent shape. They have a great college QB and a depth chart full of promising replacement candidates. They’ve recruited better than nearly anybody else in the country. They have an experienced coaching staff with a record of developing and achieving at a high level. They’re likely to sign another top five recruiting class again in 2018, one that should supplement weaker spots on the roster. And even this year, even after getting bodybagged by the Hawkeyes, they should be favored in each of their remaining regular season games.
But there are some flaws here, and left unaddressed, could compromise Ohio State’s future.
The predictability of Ohio State’s offensive playcalling, even now under a different offensive staff, is concerning, especially when the unit faces adversity. The Buckeyes have two very good, but different, running backs, and it isn’t clear the coaching staff knows how to deploy them properly, instead allowing the unit to defer to the QB run game. If replacing offensive coordinators didn’t fix it, the problem is on Meyer. How will that be addressed?
Despite killer recruiting, this roster still has holes. Offensive line depth is a significant problem, one made even more apparent after Jamarco Jones and Demetrius Knox suffered injuries (although both would return to the game). The Buckeyes have been blessed with relative offensive line help over the years, but it’s been clear that they can’t afford losing any more bodies (especially after Branden Bowen went down). There are young prospects with excellent recruiting backgrounds in that room, but that’s always been the case, and not enough players have been ready to play. Will that change?
There’s still plenty to play for this season. Ohio State controls its own destiny in Big Ten East, and they haven’t won the division in a few years. They still have Michigan to play for. And the Buckeyes still have a good chance at winning the dang Big Ten and going to a New Year’s Six bowl game. That’s not the playoff, but that’s not a bad season.
But a lackluster finish, heading into a season when the Buckeyes will need to replace nearly their entire defensive line, important offensive linemen, and one of their best QBs in school history, in a year when total staff continuity is unlikely, could absolutely take the shine off of what has been one of the most impressive runs in school history. And at Ohio State, that’s really saying something.
Saturday was a very bad, very unusual day. There is no getting around that. But what Ohio State does over the next few days, leading into next Saturday, will determine if it remains just a bad day, or a sign of what could lead to other bad days in the future.