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Ohio State’s offense is (slowly) getting back on track

They got back to basics Saturday. Now we’ll see if the Buckeyes can build on it.

NCAA Football: Army at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

“We got back to what Ohio State’s offense is: Playing fast, getting the ball in space and making plays.”

-Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell, via Bill Landis,

J.T. Barrett’s success in downfield passing against Army did not do much to quell naysayers disappointed in a lack of vertical passing. In several cases, he was inaccurate, and he often relied on short, quick tosses rather than waiting for the long throw. Despite finishing with a QBR of 88.3, completing 25 of 33 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns (with no picks), Barrett’s longest completion was for just 31 yards to tight end Marcus Baugh in the third quarter. These factors beg the question: Can the offense be successful when it comes to the vertical passing game?

The fact is that the offense was exposed against Oklahoma. The more the unit forced the downfield threat, the less successful it became as it shifted from a balanced run-pass attack to a pass-heavy game plan. The Buckeyes’ natural success is in the run game. With freshman J.K. Dobbins and sophomore Mike Weber at tailback, and Barrett running the option, the threat on the ground is hard to contain for many opposing defenses. Building from the run game, Barrett has always found success with short passes, often because he has not had the personnel to go downfield to. On Saturday, 15 of Barrett’s 25 completion were at or behind the line of scrimmage. Eventually, in tandem, success in these areas helps to open up the rest of the field, keeping opposing defenses on their toes.

There is no doubt that the Buckeyes need to work on their downfield passing, but key to success is remembering where the offense’s strengths lie, and that begins on the ground. Against Oklahoma, the Buckeyes relied too heavily on an area that was not their strength, and abandoned their bread-and-butter on offense. Those high-flying components on offense will come eventually, but Ohio State has a few weeks to work out the kinks before facing tough competition.

“I think the ceiling is higher for the Ohio State offense with Dwayne Haskins or Joe Burrow at the controls, but the floor is lower, too. Which one is more preferable?”

-Marcus Hartman, Dayton Daily News

Despite Ohio State’s win over Army Saturday, it was a rough weekend overall for football in Ohio, especially for quarterbacks. As Cincinnati and Cleveland both fell to 0-2 on the young NFL season, Andy Dalton and DeShone Kizer faced criticism and questions surrounding their role in the team’s failings. Dalton, the seasoned veteran, was outplayed by rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had his first NFL start for the Texans. Kizer, meanwhile, was sidelined in his second start for Cleveland with a migraine, but still managed to throw three picks and a fumble in the direction of the Ravens.

J.T. Barrett, by comparison, had a great weekend, as he led the Buckeyes to a decisive win over Army in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The senior quarterback passed for two touchdowns and rushed for one more as he led what turned out to be a much more balanced attack than fans saw against Oklahoma last week. Still, questions remain as to whether Barrett has peaked, and if his performances against Oklahoma this season and Clemson last year are representative of what will happen when he is at the helm against the highest competition. Urban Meyer has not wavered in his loyalty to the fifth-year senior, and the offense, under Kevin Wilson, needs to adjust accordingly to Barrett’s skillset.

Freshman quarterback Dwayne Haskins was 4-for-4 for 46 yards when he came in the game for the final 10 offensive snaps Saturday, with Ohio State well in control against Army. While he may be the quarterback of the future after this season, many are looking for him to play a bigger role now. Haskins certainly has a lot of potential, but the fact remains that Barrett has an extremely high ceiling--even if he has already reached it--and it will be a challenge for any newcomer to be able to match that level of success.

“The biggest change came on defense, where the Buckeyes lined up in a 4-2-5 formation with three safeties on the field for all but their final defensive series of Saturday’s game.”

-Dan Hope, Eleven Warriors

The Ohio State defense looked a lot different Saturday than it has so far this season, due to injuries on the Buckeyes’ side and Army’s triple-option offense. After imposing a domineering “Rushmen” package the first two games of the season with five defensive linemen on the field, the Buckeyes pulled back against the Black Knights to load up on safeties. This new lineup also meant that senior defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle, who missed most of the 2016 season due to injury, got his first start of 2017.

Senior safety Erick Smith was the main change in this new arrangement. He played the previous two games as the third safety in the Buckeyes’ rotation, but totalled 66 defensive snaps--a team high--against Army as one of three safeties on the field. Smith also continued his role on special teams on the kickoff unit. Fellow safeties Damon Webb and Jordan Fuller each played 62 defensive snaps leading up to the final defensive series of the game.

At linebacker, freshman Tuf Borland got his first defensive snaps as a Buckeye after Chris Worley left the game with a foot injury. He finished the game with 41 snaps, which was second on the unit behind Jerome Baker’s 60. Dante Booker came in for cleanup duty later in the game, relieving Baker for the final six defensive plays.

On the offensive side of the ball, seven different wide receivers saw action on offense, led by redshirt junior Terry McLaurin, who got into the game after an injury to Johnnie Dixon. True freshman Trevon Grimes also saw his first action as a Buckeye, getting in for 14 plays at wide out. Six other players saw the field for the first time at Ohio State Saturday, including freshman quarterback Dwayne Haskins, and a season-high 66 players got at least one snap.

Wrestling at Ohio State has become a family affair, as Rocky Jordan, the youngest brother of Buckeye wrestlers Bo and Micah Jordan, has committed to Ohio State. Rocky is ranked as the No. 12 recruit in the 170-pound weight class, and is No. 52 in the nation overall among high school seniors. He is already a two-time Ohio state champion as he enters his senior season.

Bo himself was a four-time champion at the state level in high school, amassing a 182-1 overall record before moving on to Ohio State. During his time in Columbus, Bo was a three-time All-American and one-time NCAA finalist in 2017. He was also part of Ohio State’s 2015 national championship team. Heading into his redshirt senior season, Bo is ranked second nationally in the 174-pound weight class.

Micah, meanwhile, was an All-American and Big Ten finalist last season. Entering his redshirt junior season, Micah is the No. 4 wrestler at the 149-pound weight class. Both brothers have also been named Academic All-Big Ten during their time at Ohio State.

The trio’s father, Jeff, was a wrestler at Wisconsin, and coached the boys at St. Paris Graham High School in Ohio. Their uncle, Jim, was a two-time national champion at Wisconsin, and their cousin, Isaac, was a two-time conference champion for the Badgers (Bo lost to Isaac in the Big Ten finals in 2015).