The Ohio State Buckeyes offense has been virtually unstoppable all season. Even in the loss to Purdue, quarterback Dwayne Haskins passed for nearly 500 yards and two touchdowns. Haskins has rewrote record after record in the school history books, and ended the regular season as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
On the ground, Ohio State is still good, but the expectations were a lot higher. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber were supposed to be a thunder-and-lightning tandem, but haven’t generated the kind of Heisman and Doak Walker Trophy buzz. Dobbins eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, thanks in large part to a 203-yard day against Maryland. Weber reeled in 858 yards in only 12 games.
Between these three Buckeyes on the offense, they are the catalysts. A great day by either of them busts games wide open. The Washington Huskies bring the 12th best total defense in the country to Pasadena, California. They surrender nearly 302 yards per game, and give up an average of 15.5 points per contest. Will the Huskies hold Haskins to under 300 yards passing? Will Ohio State score at least 16 points in the Rose Bowl? Both seem likely, but if the Buckeye offense, at any point, were to be stifled, look no further than linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.
Washington’s star defender, Burr-Kirven led the team in tackles with 165. Eighty-five of those were unassisted, while 80 of them were assisted. If those numbers looked pretty good, then you’re right; no one else on UW’s squad had more than 70 total tackles. Basically, if there was a tackle to be made, more likely than not Burr-Kirven was there. Additionally, the Menlo Park, California, native tallied 4.0 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, six pass breakups, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. If there was a renaissance man on defense, Burr-Kirven would fit the bill. His stats didn’t go unnoticed; he was named Pac-12 Football Scholar Athlete of the Year, All-Pac-12 First Team, and made First Team and Second Team All-America—depending on the outlet.
Regardless of where the ball carrier is, No. 25 isn’t too far away. He can put some pressure on QBs, and can give chase down the sideline to stop a screen. The skillset of Burr-Kirven is enough where he alone could cause problems to the OSU offense. He isn’t afraid to square up his tackles. If Weber was hoping to use his power rushing to blow through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he may get stood up by the Huskies’ star LB. He’s held up rushers this season, and has stopped big plays from busting loose.
Overall, the Huskies have held rushing attacks. Oregon secured the most yards on the ground against UW, tallying 177 yards on 49 attempts. Also, only Stanford passed for 300-plus yards against the eventual Pac-12 champs. The Cardinal offense lobbed 347 yards and two scores, but also threw three interceptions in a 27-23 loss in Spokane. You could say a bad day for Haskins would be 347 yards.
But, Burr-Kirven can’t do it alone; he needs help to shut down the Buckeyes. The defensive line is chalk full of experience with Shane Bowman, Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson. Of the trio on the D-Line, Gaines has recorded the most tackles (52) and sacks (3.5). These seniors have been the glue, and they’ve been part of Husky teams to go to New Year’s Six bowl games. With losses in the Fiesta and Peach bowls, they are running out of time to win one of the “big ones” in the postseason.
Seniority isn’t exclusive to the line. In the secondary, JoJo McIntosh and Jordan Miller will try to anchor down the pass defense. Miller has snagged a couple picks this season, however, they haven’t gone up against a Heisman or NFL caliber QB. The closest they came was against the Ducks, where Justin Herbert threw for 202 yards and a pair of scores in an overtime win in Eugene, Oregon.
Washington State’s Gardner Minshew may have been the QB that best reflects what the Huskies will face on Tuesday. The Cougars operate an air-raid offense, with Minshew slinging the ball seemingly at will. He was held to 152 yards, and had zero TDs and two interceptions against Washington. Granted, that game took place in a windy snowstorm. If the same weather happens in Pasadena, then we, collectively, have bigger problems to worry about than who will when the battle in the passing game.
If Ohio State wants to break off chunk plays, then they’ll have to do to Burr-Kirven what some teams have done to Buckeye linebacker Malik Harrison: stay away from him. The jet sweep with Parris Campbell and outside rushing will make it a challenge of wills. Whoever gets to the sideline firsts, wins. A good sweep by Campbell may be just enough for him to make it to the edge, and make it a foot race. Washington hasn’t seen this kind of offensive speed this season, but with the success Chris Petersen has had, he knows how to make adjustments. Whatever works in the first half for Ohio State, may not be as success in the second half; changes will have to be made. However, against Michigan, Ryan Day and the offensive minds changed up the strategy—incorporating reverse mesh routes—that fooled the Wolverines en route to a 62-39 blowout win in Columbus.
Protecting underneath and stopping rushes up the middle will be how Washington stays afloat in the Rose Bowl. Haskins is gonna make a big play or two, the question is just how game breaking those plays will be. The Huskies can’t trade scores with OSU. They’ll have to stop the offense, and hope that a Drue Chrisman punt doesn’t pin them inside their own 10- of 5-yard line. If Burr-Kirven gets smoked by the speed of Dobbins and Campbell, then, buddy, it’s gonna be a long day in California for the Huskies—and, conversely, a great day for the Buckeyes.
And I’m not even factoring in the component of this being Urban Meyer’s final game. Washington will have to unequivocally better than ohio State on both sides of the ball if they want to hold the trophy in the Rose Bowl.
That’s a tall task to ask.