No. 4 Ohio State continued to build its early-season momentum in its outing against Rutgers last week, defeating the Scarlet Knights 52-3. The win was the 900th in program history and, though coming against Rutgers, gave the Buckeyes an early leg up in the Big Ten East. Ohio State controlled the game from start to finish, with a stout defense that gave up just 134 yards from scrimmage. The Big Ten game also provided a crucial tuneup for the Buckeyes’ matchup this week with No. 15 TCU, its toughest non-conference test of the season.
After finishing ninth in the final AP Poll last year, TCU has had a strong start to 2018, opening with a 55-7 win over Southern in Week One, and following up with a 42-12 victory in driving rains over SMU. Ohio State is the final non-conference game of the season for the Horned Frogs, who are scheduled to go on the road against Tom Herman’s Texas squad in Week Four to open their round-robin schedule of Big 12 play.
Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs’ lead man since 2000, is the second-longest tenured head coach in the FBS behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. Despite the switch to a Power 5 conference in 2012, Patterson has brought home seven 11-win seasons in the last decade and earned a Big 12 co-championship in 2014 (more on that later). Last season, the Horned Frogs finished second in the conference behind Oklahoma, capping the season with an Alamo Bowl victory over Stanford.
However, the loss of Kenny Hill— who played two seasons under Patterson after transferring from Texas A&M— left uncertainty at the quarterback position heading into 2018. Just two weeks before the start of the season, Patterson named sophomore Shawn Robinson to the starting role. Robinson served as Hill’s backup last season, but had been locked in a battle with Penn transfer Michael Collins for the starting job since spring practice.
Despite his new role as a starter, Robinson presents a real threat to the Ohio State defense, since he is the first true dual-threat quarterback the unit has faced in a long time. He was the sixth-ranked dual-threat passer in the 2017 recruiting class, but the Buckeye defense might be better prepared than it would seem: Tate Martell, who practiced on the scout team last season, was No. 2 in the same class.
In terms of the overall schedule, Ohio State has not been shy about scheduling premiere non-conference matchups early in the season, though these generally have taken the format of a home-and-home. The results from these matchups, as would be expected when pitting top teams against one another, has been mixed. Ohio State split matchups with Virginia Tech from 2014-15 and with Oklahoma in 2016-17.
Ohio State has faced off against TCU six times in program history, winning the last three head-to-heads in 1966, 1969 and 1973. The Buckeyes also won in 1937 and tied in 1961, with the only series loss coming in 1957. Woody Hayes was at the helm at Ohio State in five of the six games between the two schools.
For Ohio State, this week marks the final game with Ryan Day as interim head coach before Urban Meyer returns versus Tulane. Day’s team has been impressive in its first two outings, but a ranked matchup away from Columbus will be an entirely different sort of test.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
Across (and down) the field. Despite all of the questions surrounding how he would manage to replace J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins hasn’t shown any serious growing pains in his first two starts at quarterback. Some even have Haskins listed as a Heisman candidate.
In his opening outings, he has emerged as one of the most accurate passers in the country, completing greater than 79 percent of his throws— good for third in the FBS. He has three touchdowns of 20 yards or more, and has enabled the growth of a vertical passing game which has been largely absent in recent years in Columbus. And while he has shown skill with the deep ball, Haskins has also demonstrated his ability in short passing situations, patiently managing sustained drives with his offense instead of jumping to the long pass.
Haskins’ downfield passing threat means nothing without reliable receivers, and those receivers have shown up through the first two games of the season. Against Oregon State, Terry McLaurin turned a 15-yard reception into a 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter to start and finish a one-play drive. Versus Rutgers, Johnny Dixon opened the scoring with a 44-yard touchdown catch. Through just two games, 11 receivers have catches of 10 or more yards.
Reliable rushing. For an offense which has been so running-centric in recent years, it’s been a fascinating break to watch a vertical passing game emerge in the opening games of 2018. However, the ground game, led in tandem by Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, has remained a consistent and reliable source of yardage and points for the OSU offense. Though much of the hype surrounded Dobbins, who had a breakout, 1,400-yard season as a true freshman last year, it’s been Weber who has gained the most ground rushing in his redshirt junior season. Weber’s totaled 217 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries in 2018, while Dobbins is sitting at 147 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries.
Then there is the Martell factor. Haskins’ backup has played cleanup duty mainly in the second half of the first two games, but did well enough against Rutgers to earn Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week honors last week. The freshman went 10-for-10 passing for 121 yards and a touchdown. Importantly, he added another 47-yard score on the ground to demonstrate his running ability. Though Haskins is clearly the starter, it helps to have a quarterback with a different skill set comfortable and ready to step in if need be.
TCU boasts the best defense in the Big 12, so a diversified set of offensive weapons will be vital for Ohio State. Establishing the run early will help to open up that beautiful downfield passing that’s already become so familiar this season.
Second(ary) to none. The Silver Bullets were without some of their firepower in the season opener against Oregon State. Safety Jordan Fuller missed the matchup with a strained hamstring, while linebacker Tuf Borland, recovering from an Achilles injury, only played 10 snaps versus the Beavers. Without the pair for most of the game, the Ohio State defense gave up 196 yards each rushing and passing, including more than 300 yards on just seven chunk plays.
However, with safety Jordan Fuller back and with Borland more than doubling his snap count last week against Rutgers, the Buckeyes locked up their defense, eliminating the big plays which had caused them such trouble Week One. Fuller recorded three tackles and a pass breakup, while Borland had three tackles himself. As a team, Ohio State allowed just 65 yards through the air and 69 on the ground, giving up just three points to the Scarlet Knights.
It was a massive improvement against a theoretically better opponent. While credit certainly goes to the rest of the defense for making the adjustments from week to week, the presence of Fuller especially eliminated much of the threat of a big play through the air. This week, those pieces will be even more necessary as the defense takes on the dual-threat of Robinson, and his multi-faceted offensive weapons.
TCU’s biggest advantages
Total defense. The Big 12 might not be known for its defense, but the fact that TCU has the best defense in its conference should not be discounted. Last season, the Horned Frogs finished the season allowing just 331 yards per game (by comparison, Ohio State allowed 301) in a conference famous for racking up yardage seemingly just for the sake of it.
This season, though coming versus Southern and SMU, the defense has given up under 220 yards per game, and allowed less than 23 percent of attempted third down conversions. The Horned Frogs defense is led by defensive end Ben Banogu, who opted to return to TCU for his senior season, losing out on, by some projections, a first-round selection in the NFL Draft. He was named the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year over the summer after recording 8.5 sacks in 2017.
For a defense that is used to defending high-wire passing games, Ohio State will need to be prepared to make adjustments, balancing its offensive firepower to keep the Horned Frogs on their toes.
A special teams speedster. Senior KaVontae Turpin may stand at just 5-foot-9, 157-pounds, but he has proven to be one of the most elusive returners in his conference over the course of his career. Last season, Turpin led the Horned Frogs with 1,202 all-purpose yards, including more than 700 combined return yards. In fact, Turpin was named to the Big 12 Media Preseason Football Team this past July as the top projected return man in the conference. In the first two weeks of this season, he’s shown why.
Turpin has returned seven punts for a total of 145 yards— the second-highest total yardage in the FBS. His 20.7 yard average return is good for sixth in the country, and Turpin’s 78-yard return for a touchdown last week against SMU— in the rain and after a delay, no less— was the fifth special teams touchdown of his career.
Ohio State has not allowed a single punt return yard this season (they’ve only punted five times, with no returns), but the team also has yet to face someone on the level of Turpin. Combined with the fact that the Buckeyes will be facing a tougher defense and a higher chance of punting on a given possession, and TCU’s return game in general, and Turpin in particular, will become much more viable threats.
A thirst for revenge. Remember that time Ohio State won the first ever College Football Playoff championship in 2014? Remember how Ohio State got the last playoff spot and ran through Alabama and Oregon to win the title? Anyone remember who got shut out of the playoff that year?
TCU does. Ohio State had been out of the playoff picture heading into the Big Ten Championship game in 2014, sitting at the No. 5 spot. TCU was No. 4, and finished its season with a win over 2-10 Iowa State. Baylor, at the No. 6 spot, capped off the year with a much narrower victory over No. 9 Kansas State. However, it was Ohio State who ultimately won the day. The Buckeyes’ 59-0 pummeling of Wisconsin was enough for the committee to move the Buckeyes to the No. 4 spot--jumping TCU and staying ahead of Baylor.
The Big 12, naturally, shifted. After an NCAA rule change in 2015 which allowed for any conference, regardless of size, to host a title game, the Big 12 immediately opted to reinstate its championship game starting in 2017. They reaped the rewards immediately, as Oklahoma made its second playoff in 2017.
At TCU, which still has not made a playoff, only the coaching staff and redshirt seniors remember the feeling of being left out personally, but you have to believe that the Horned Frogs will be hyping up the snub from 2014, and beating Ohio State in 2018 would go a long way in TCU’s hunt to finally get that elusive playoff berth.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 35, TCU 23
Win probability: Ohio State 86.7%
While still heavily in favor of Ohio State, the win probability isn’t nearly as high as it has been the first two weeks of the season. TCU presents a real foe with a significant pool of talent on both sides of the ball. The offense has molded well in the opening weeks of the season, but Saturday’s matchup will be a significant challenge against a strong non-conference opponent, and Ohio State will have to respond accordingly.
How to watch, stream, listen to Ohio State at Rutgers:
Game time: Saturday September 15th, 8 PM ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM