Once again, another Monday passed, and another Urban Meyer press conference at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center got completed. All the non-conference regular season games are in the books, meaning the road to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game is now full speed ahead.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights are the team the Buckeyes will face this week, and Meyer divulged some tidbits about his program as we head into Week 5 of this college football season.
Let’s break down three of the biggest points Meyer made at the podium, and figure out what this means for the Scarlet and Gray as they try to make their way back to the top of the conference (and college football) mountain.
1. “Weber is cleared, and he'll play”
By far the most important words uttered by Meyer on Monday were in that quote above. Mike Weber didn’t play in the Buckeyes' 54-21 win against UNLV, played sparingly against Army, had three rushes in the loss to the Oklahoma Sooners and didn’t even play in the season opener against Indiana.
Hearing that he’s clear is going to make the OSU running game infinitely better. J.K. Dobbins has been holding down the fort and J.T. Barrett has always been utilized as a potential runner in the read-option. With Weber in the fold, he becomes the guy that bulldozes past defenses on those third-and-short scenarios.
If Weber is at 100 percent, a running duo of Dobbins and Weber will be OSU’s version of ‘Thunder and Lighting.’ Really, if things start to click, it’ll be next to impossible to stop Ohio State on the run. Going up against an Iowa or a Penn State, teams will need to have some sort of running game that can fight on through the physicality; having just one back, especially one that has speed being his claim to fame, won’t cut it.
Also, having Weber gives Barrett another passing option. Especially since Barrett throws a fair amount of passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, it’s another option to have. Last season, Weber hauled in 23 passes for 91 yards.
Holding the Detroit native out of the UNLV contest gave him that extra week to get healthy. In pressers past, Meyer has mentioned the importance of his returning 1,000-yard rusher. At this point of the season, how healthy the team is becomes a storyline in itself—title hopes can nosedive after a star player goes down with a long-term injury.
Chris Worley was said to be probable for Rutgers, and Malik Barrow has an ACL tear, rendering him out for the season. Right now, that’s two key members of the defense who are out; on offense, with the return of Weber, there really isn’t a big injury on the first line of the depth chart.
We’ll see how healthy Weber is on Saturday. But either way, expect him to be weaned back into the swing of things, and fully back by the time Penn State rolls into Columbus.
2. “You can see we're working on it very hard. Obviously the game changes a lot down there [the red zone] and we haven't been good the last couple of years. So we're working our tails off at that.”
In the first few weeks of the season, Ohio State struggled to operate a touchdown driven offense when they got to the red zone. (Who remembers the Oklahoma game, where the Buckeyes screwed around deep in OU territory, and had to settle for three? Feeling frustrated by that memory?)
Well, times are changing—and that’s a good thing.
Passing TDs off of quality throws and catches were the theme in the win against UNLV. Binjimen Victor went up for a jump-ball toward the edge of the end zone, and Terry McLaurin caught a ball in the northeast corner of touchdown land that probably made the Rebels wonder, “man, why are we even playing this game?”
Wow, what a catch by Binjimen Victor. Great concentration and awareness to get his right foot down while being pushed out. pic.twitter.com/9Xz7UyhDYT— Christopher Jason (@cjason112) September 23, 2017
It wasn’t a fluke that Barrett was cranking gems; they’ve been working on it. It took four games to get to this point, but Meyer said that the offense has been working to get better with the short field in front of them. This problem hasn’t been a 2017 season problem, it’s existed for quite some time. Meyer said it goes back a couple years; however, go back to the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, and you’ll see the Buckeyes struggle—albeit early in the game—to get into the end zone while in the Crimson Tide’s red zone.
Opening up the playbook down in the red zone might be one of the biggest tidbits Meyer has given us about how his offense operates. If you’re an opposing coach, specifically, a defensive coach, you could always bank on OSU doing a run play, a rollout with a throw direct to the corner of the end zone, or the always-predictable read-option when they got close to the goal line. If teams played their cards right—which some did a little too well—then you held the Buckeyes to three points.
Granted, Meyer reduced the Rebels defense, which already lost to Howard this season after giving up 43 points, to swiss cheese. His offense needed these kinds of cupcake games to basically act as a research and development section of the football operations. Even though you may run those red zone passing plays in practice, it’s a whole different story when you gotta do it in an actual game.
(Real talk: Practice is wayyy different than doing the actual thing. I remember a time when I was trying out for my high school golf team, and I was hitting the ball well at the driving range. However, when I went to like hole No. 4, a hole that basically had the pin on an island surrounded by water, it’s like I didn’t know how to golf. Long story short: I lost like 5 Callaway golf balls on that hole.)
The execution of touchdown passes in the red zone are a sign that 1) Kevin Wilson and co. are utilizing more options when they get close to the land of six, and 2) the receivers can make plays when the ball is on the money—which was sorta suspect against IU and OU.
3. “So they have to develop and grow. And I thought we'd be a little further ahead in pass defense. I thought our corner development would be a little bit further ahead, but they are making strides.”
Even though they got two picks against Rebels quarterback Armani Rogers, the Buckeyes’ pass defense is still a work in progress. The two picks were great, but they came against a redshirt freshman. I will admit, though, I thought there were more than a few glimpses that the Buckeyes’ claim of being ‘Defensive Back University’ was on its way to coming back into the national conversation after the Rebels drubbing.
On the other hand, there were a few times when the coverage fell apart, and Rogers was able to make a few plays happen. In the end, let’s call a spade a spade: UNLV wasn’t really that good of an example to see how the OSU pass defense was performing. The Hoosiers and Sooners were two good tests, and the Buckeyes barely passed IU—and flunked the Baker Mayfield exam.
Meyer is one of the more open coaches in college football; some coaches, you’d be lucky to get more than a sentence fragment for an answer like this. With that being said, I’m inclined to believe that when Meyer says strides are being made, strides are being made.
While Meyer may see the strides being made on the practice field, we’ll only see them during the games. The question now proposed is: will we see enough of it against Rutgers? This season, against their two Power 5 conference opponents, Washington and Nebraska, the Scarlet Knights aired out the ball for 178 yards and 126 yards, respectively. Against the Huskies, the squad from New Brunswick, N.J. threw 35 times.
It will be safe to expect that Chris Ash will have his QB take some chances down the field. That’s when we’ll find out if the Buckeyes have gotten better preventing teams from marching down the field via the air. While Rutgers may be a better team this season—Meyer said it himself during the presser—they’ll be hard pressed to have a functional offense against OSU’s defense.
More strides will be made before the team takes of for New Jersey. Expect a pick (or two) from the secondary when all is said and done on Saturday night.