You can forgive Ohio State for starting Week 1 a little flat. A Thursday game, a conference opponent, a new offensive coordinator—all possible ingredients in an uninspired start to the preseason No. 2 team in college football.
But Week 1 is behind us, and we've gotten a taste of the kind of haymakers that college football's other premier teams can throw. The Buckeyes have to face one of those heavyweights, Oklahoma, this Saturday in Columbus.
The guy who might make all the difference in this bout? Week 1's first half goat and second half hero.
Name: Parris Campbell
Height/Weight: 6'1, 208 lbs.
Stat line: 6 receptions, 136 yards, 1 TD
Campbell had a dismal first half against Indiana on Thursday night, letting a first down ball bounce off his hands early before dropping one of the prettiest throws of J.T. Barrett's career in the end zone. It's safe to say he made up for it in the game's final 30 minutes. The highlight play, one which vaulted the Buckeyes into the lead for good, was a 74-yard scamper for six after a short throw from Barrett; Campbell left a slew of Hoosier defenders looking like they were moving in slow motion on that run.
The Sooners' defense features a number of key contributors from last year's unit, including some stout linemen in Neville Gallimore and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and experienced safeties Steven Parker and Will Johnson. Standout corner Jordan Thomas also returns. The issue for Oklahoma is that last year's defense just wasn't all that impressive, finishing out 2016 as the No. 55 defense by S&P+. That won't be good enough to hang with Ohio State if the Buckeyes start firing on all cylinders like they did in the second half last week.
Last weekend, the Sooners steamrolled an overmatched UTEP team to the tune of 56-7. That beatdown belied an almost boring performance by Oklahoma's defense—they stifled the Miners, allowing just 167 total yards, but got just one sack and no interceptions for their trouble. (In fairness, they did record four tackles for loss and force a fumble in the open field.)
What to watch for
Given the above, and the fact that Oklahoma's defense recorded just 17 takeaways all last season, there's a clear opportunity for the Buckeyes to exploit their matchups in the passing game here.
Enter Parris Campbell. The junior H-back is stepping into a regular contributing role this season for the first time in his Buckeye career after being mostly relegated to punt/kick duty in 2016. Thursday night's game was an excellent showcase for Campbell's weaknesses (hands) and his strengths (speed, cuts, vision); against Oklahoma, Urban Meyer and Kevin Wilson can scheme to emphasize the latter while minimizing the impact of the former.
To wit: Ohio State's two best pass plays against Indiana, one of which was Campbell's long score, share some similarities. On both, the receiver lines up on the right side and follows an inside route toward the left half of field. (Johnnie Dixon, loose behind the Hoosiers' linebackers, sits on the throw at the second level; Campbell's drag route takes him all the way across the field just beyond the line of scrimmage.) And on both, getting one of the Buckeyes' superior athletes into open space was enough to chew up more than half the field and get in for a touchdown.
Johnnie Dixon: MAKIN' HOUSE CALLS pic.twitter.com/v4QYSOBs8b— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) September 1, 2017
and also just how damn fast parris campbell is pic.twitter.com/93tMEfId1K— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) September 3, 2017
We know by now that this set of Buckeye personnel with this particular quarterback rarely thrives when asked to connect on long pass plays and beat a defense deep before the ball arrives. Guys like Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack are built like prototypical NFL wideouts, but they're green enough that they've yet to find a rhythm with Barrett, who gets mighty shaky beyond 15 yards or so. They also probably want to avoid testing a player like Jordan Thomas, who could make Barrett pay on an under-thrown ball.
But against Oklahoma—a team that can throw the ball with the best of them, in a matchup that's likely to be a shootout—they shouldn't have to. The Buckeyes' small receiving corps' strength is tailor-made to exploit the weaknesses of a team like the Sooners, and the more Urban Meyer leans on it (along with a healthy dose of the stable of running backs at his disposal), Ohio State should be able to handle Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma.