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Miami’s wide receivers will be lifeline against Ohio State

Through three games, the Buckeye defense has stifled offenses by shutting down the passing game.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday afternoon inside Ohio Stadium, the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes will host their final non-conference opponent of the regular season. The Miami-Ohio RedHawks make the short trek to Columbus, searching for the first win of the season against an in-state foe.

In that search, they will have both hands full.

To begin the season, the RedHawks lost to Big Ten West member Iowa, 38-13. After a home win versus Tennessee Tech, Miami fell to Cincinnati, 35-13. Those two losses come on the road, and in addition to that, the RedHawks struggled mightily on offense. The Hawkeyes held Miami to 245 total yards, with 59 of those coming on the ground. Similarly, in the loss to the Bearcats the RedHawks only yielded 207 yards of offense.

Miami hasn’t been able to get its running game going, and considering the likes of Chase Young and Malik Harrison will be on the field this weekend for OSU, don’t buy stock in the running game all of a sudden becoming potent on Saturday inside The ‘Shoe. If the RedHawks get 80 yards on the ground, it’ll be a minor miracle.

With that being said, if Miami finds a way to stick close to OSU, it will be thanks to the air game. Brett Gabbert, who’s brother is former Missouri QB and first round NFL Draft pick Blaine Gabbert, is the signal-caller for the RedHawks. Miami has produced NFL talent in the past like Ben Roethlisberger, and for an upset to occur, the younger Gabbert will need a Big Ben kind of day. Unlike past weeks, where the QB has been the pulse of the individual offenses taking on the Buckeyes, Gabbert’s play is only part of the equation.

If we were transported back to 2018, I would say that quarterback play would be the most important component for an offense facing the OSU defense. If the quarterback could get the ball to his receiver, chances were good that a completion and/or big chunk play would be created. Now, just because the QB can throw the ball to his receiver doesn’t really mean much because the Buckeye pass defense has leveled up.

For example, Harrison Bryant was Florida Atlantic’s go-to pass catcher. A tight end, he may not have been the fastest guy on the offense, but he was big enough to go up against the defensive backs; that was the theory at least. Buckeye defenders shut him down — breaking up passes and making him an unavailable option all game.

Last week, Indiana had a respectable 214 yards in the air, however, under closer inspection, 49 of those yards (and their only touchdown) came by way of trick play. A screen turned into a WR pass, completely catching the OSU defense off guard. Key wide receivers Whop Philyor and Nick Westbrook had a combined six catches and 72 yards.

When Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller, Jeffrey Okudah, Brendon White and Shaun Wade are locking down on passes, not only does the QB need to throw the ball on the money, but the receivers need to haul it in. Notably, Okudah has been dominant at stopping receivers from busting out huge plays.

First and second downs, naturally, will be the make-or-break plays of the drive for the RedHawks. If running back Davion Johnson can’t get a couple of yards when handed the rock, the last thing Miami needs to be in is second-(or third)-and-long. Expecting to burn one of the safeties or cornerbacks is a pipedream, so working a slant across the middle or towards the hash marks are the viable options — each with pros and cons. Johnson is used as a receiving option, and actually has the most receptions (8) on the team entering Week 4. While not designated as a wide receiver, he’s going to have to be one of the driving forces when the ball comes his way.

When it comes to most average yards per game, those honors belong to Dominique Robinson and Jalen Walker. Robinson, a junior from Canton, has pulled in five passes for 106 yards; Walker, a redshirt sophomore from Carmel, Ind., has four receptions for 113 receiving. Both average over 20 yards per reception, and their ability to break free will be critical. When the passes are thrown, they need to catch and weave around the defense. Again, that’s a tall order considering how this Buckeye pass D has stepped up.

Being in third-and-short (within three yards of the first down marker) situations will be the goal for Miami this week. On the season, they are 7-of-12 when three yards or closer to moving the sticks. Outside of that? Buddy, it’s not a pretty scene. The RedHawks are 2-of-9 when the distance is 4-6 yards, 2-of-8 when the distance is 7-9 yards, and 3-of-10 when they have to go 10 yards or more for the first down.

Against Iowa and Cincinnati, Miami was a combined 8-of-26 on third down, succeeding in just four third-down conversions in each game. In both, they were 0-for-3 in third down situations that went 10 yards and beyond. If head coach Chuck Martin and offensive coordinators Eric Koehler and George Barnett had problems designing a strategy to move the chains in those games, then they are going to have a real problem on their hands against Ohio State.

Like any game, limiting turnovers will do wonders in making a game competitive. But in this case, getting short third down conversions, and having receivers actually catch the ball and run will be the most important objectives for Miami.

The Buckeyes are supremely talented, and will cause havoc throughout the afternoon. Bank on Young getting at least one sack, Fuller making tackles, and Okudah stuffing a play that should’ve gone for 10 yards. Since we’re focusing on the passing game in this article, Gabbert aiming for the sidelines may be the strategy. If passes are being targeted outside of the hash lines, that’ll limit the potential for interceptions, making the worst case scenario a pass breakup.

Odds don’t look good for Miami; they’re getting roughly 40 points from the sportsbooks. To avoid that 40-plus point beatdown, the Miami receiving corps has to show up. Gabbert will obviously have to make throws, but his receivers will have to come up with — and hold onto — the ball as well. So far — at least against the Buckeye defense — that’s been easier said than done.