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Ohio State has room for improvement, but isn’t out of the title race yet

Saturday was ugly. But that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes are done for the season.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Ohio State Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

“But if Ohio State is going to duplicate the bounce-back run to the national title of the 2014 squad, it will need to keep these lessons in mind as it regroups for a nonconference matchup with Army this week.”

-Austin Ward, Land of 10

As troubling as Ohio State’s loss to Oklahoma Saturday was, there is no reason to hit the panic button just yet. The Buckeyes still have every opportunity to win a Big Ten title, and the nonconference loss happened early enough in the season that Ohio State still has a chance to recover before the selection committee makes its initial picks for the College Football Playoff. However, in order to get to that point, the Buckeyes need to make some obvious improvements on both sides of the ball. Just as the 2014 squad came together following the loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2, so does this team need to mature and gel as a unit.

For starters, even with the renewed passing attack promised by Kevin Wilson’s new offense, the strength of Ohio State’s offense lies in its running game. With Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins at running back and J.T. Barrett at quarterback, opposing defenses have a tough time figuring out how to stop the Buckeyes’ three-headed running monster. Unfortunately, the trio didn’t get nearly as many touches as they probably should have in retrospect, with Weber and Dobbins combining for just 16 carries. While Barrett himself had 18 carries for 66 yards, better utilization of the tailbacks could have resulted in a stronger offensive performance overall for the Buckeyes.

On the defensive side, the defensive line showed why they are one of the elite units in college football, with Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa combining to wreak havoc on Baker Mayfield. Hubbard and Bosa both got a sack on Saturday night.

In terms of specialists, kicker Sean Nuernberger and punter Drue Chrisman provided the efficiency and excellence that has come to be expected at Ohio State in terms of special teams. Nuernberger connected on all three of his field goal attempts while Chrisman averaged 46 yards per punt, landing all four attempts inside of Oklahoma’s 20 yard line.

“Ohio State fans need only to point to an opposing quarterback planting a crimson-and-cream flag at midfield in the Horseshoe. After two weeks of the 2017 season, Auburn, Notre Dame and Ohio State are among the biggest disappointments in college football.”

-Mark Schlabach, ESPN

The good news for Ohio State, after a more-than-disappointing loss to Oklahoma over the weekend, is that they are, at least, not alone. Auburn, who was taken down by Clemson Saturday, allowed 11 sacks on quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Stidham also recorded just 79 passing yards, which makes J.T. Barrett’s 183 seem perfectly reasonable. Notre Dame, meanwhile, suffered a one-point loss to Georgia Saturday, despite 12 penalties and two turnovers by the Bulldogs, who were also starting a freshman quarterback.

All three of these teams entered the 2017 season with high expectations, given massive changes for all three programs in the offseason. Adjustments to Ohio State’s coaching staff have been well-documented, especially Kevin Wilson’s arrival as offensive coordinator and Ryan Day’s appointment as quarterbacks coach. At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly completely overhauled the program, hiring 17 new assistants and coordinators to the coaching staff. Gus Malzahn, while less extreme, also facilitated serious adjustments in the offseason, bringing in a new offensive coordinator and gaining Stidham as a transfer from Baylor.

However, those high expectations were, perhaps, highest for Ohio State, who entered the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll. Despite an embarrassing, shutout loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Clemson, there was still an expectation that the Buckeyes would come back as a much-improved team in the fall. While those expectations may have been too high, given the youth of the secondary and the inexperience of many of the wide receivers, the team was supposed to show dominance in other position groups early. Barrett, for instance, was supposed to assert himself in Wilson’s new system, the veteran and three-time captain leading the charge.

Still, the season is young. The Buckeyes have a lot of adjustments to make, but given their next three matchups against Army, UNLV and Rutgers, they should have some space to make changes.

“While none of that is good, it obscures the other, equally glaring crisis on the other side of the ball: Ohio State’s pass defense has been a complete catastrophe through two games.”

-Zach Barnett, NBC Sports

While much of the criticism following Ohio State’s 31-16 loss to Oklahoma Saturday centered on a poor offensive attack plan, perhaps the greater crisis is one which has been lurking since the spring: the utter lack of reliability in the secondary. With the lure of new offensive weapons and a defensive line that can dismantle opposing offensive lines, the fact that the Buckeyes lost three first round picks at cornerback and safety, and that these players would need to be replaced by individuals with much less experience, seemed to go under the radar.

However, that fact has now become undeniable, as Ohio State has allowed more passing yards than literally every other team in the FBS through two weeks of play. What makes this drop particularly troubling is that the Buckeyes were seventh in the category last year, allowing just 172.2 passing yards per game. Overall defensive pass efficiency has dropped from No. 3 in the NCAA to No. 110 as the Buckeyes have allowed completions on 69 of 103 passes attempted against them for 806 yards, six touchdowns and two picks. They are the fourth-most passed against team in the country, and the six touchdowns given up through the air are more than all but six teams currently.

Even so, two games is a small sample size, especially when those two games come against two of the top passing teams in the country. Oklahoma did finish last season ranked 12th nationally in passing offense, averaging 318 yards per game through the air. Indiana, meanwhile, was 28th in the NCAA, with 273.8 passing yards per game. In many ways, this statistic is a reflection of the teams played so far this season, and there is still opportunity to improve for the young unit. The good news for the Buckeyes is that Army, their opponent this weekend, has just 17 passing yards on the season.