With the “make-of-it-what-you-will” win over Florida Atlantic firmly in the rear-view mirror (don’t make much of it), the Ohio State Buckeyes now turns its attention towards what will easily be their toughest test of the non-conference schedule. Former interim head coach Luke Fickell is returning to Columbus for the first time since taking the reigns of the Bearcats. Based on Cincinnati’s performance last weekend against UCLA, Ohio State will need to come correct on both sides of the ball if they want to send their out-of-in-state rivals home with a loss.
Buckeye Offense vs. Bearcat Defense
The hallmark of Cincinnati’s team this year is far and away their defense. Color Buckeye fans shocked, given Fickell spent nearly a decade and a half contributing to the schemes and development of Ohio State’s Silver Bullets. But their performance in their home-opener against UCLA in Week 1 likely came as a shock to a lot of people watching, as Chip Kelly —once regarded as the college game’s brilliant offensive mad scientist — had nearly no answers for the Bearcat front seven in the first sixty minutes of the season.
UCLA managed just 62 rushing yards on 36 carries for the game, which comes out to a ghastly average of 1.7 yards per carry. Sophomore QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson alone finished with 10 carries for -20 yards, which sounds bad, but gets even worse when considering he took only two sacks the entire game. UCLA had a bit more success passing the ball, but not by much, as DTR only completed eight of his 26 attempts for 156 yards. Additionally, only two of UCLA’s receivers recorded more than a single catch, and the Bruins got 114 of their passing yards (73%) from just two of those eight completions.
The Bearcats brought relentless pressure all evening, and UCLA simply didn’t have any way to adjust. However, if there’s one Achilles’ heel in the Cincinnati defense, it would appear to be their ability to defend the deep ball. There were multiple plays during this game that saw UCLA receivers slip past the Cincinnati secondary, but the tremendous inaccuracy of their quarterback, combined with the Bearcat blitz, doomed the Bruins from ever being able to fully take advantage. UCLA’s 75-yard touchdown pass during this game was the result of a delayed safety-valve route out of the backfield that went for 69 yards after the catch.
The key to Ohio State handling Cincinnati on Saturday will come down to how the offense plans to handle the inevitable Bearcat blitzkrieg, and that aforementioned touchdown by UCLA holds a clue in how to respond. Assuming Cincinnati’s stellar run defense holds the Buckeye rushing attack in check, there will likely be many second/third-and-long situations where their pass rush will pin their ears back in pursuit of Justin Fields.
These moments will require Fields to not only recognize where the pressure is coming from, but where his easiest targets are on the field at all times. Much like last season when Penn State played a blitz-heavy game with the goal of making Dwayne Haskins uncomfortable, I anticipate we will see Ohio State respond with a bevy of screens and quick dump-offs to use the Bearcats’ relentlessness against them.
Should Fields have enough time to step up and throw in the pocket, Ohio State has more than enough talent necessary to launch as many guided missiles as they please over the heads of the Cincinnati defenders.
This will be a tough test, particularly for the unseasoned offensive line, but provided OSU head coach Ryan Day keeps an aggressive — yet perceptive — strategy for moving the ball, Ohio State should be able to score with some consistency. From there, it’s just a matter of Fields playing without a sense of paranoia, which falls equally on him and the linemen tasked with pass blocking.
Bearcat Offense vs. Buckeye Defense
The good news for Buckeye fans is that Cincinnati’s offense — while far from incompetent — is much less intimidating than their defensive counterparts. The Bearcats had some solid drives throughout the game and did a great job of controlling the clock, but their slow-burn offense made this game much closer than it perhaps should have been.
Though Cincinnati’s offense doesn’t play with much urgency, there does appear to be some solid balance in their structure. The Bearcats fed their starting running back Michael Warren II with 29 touches last week, and he responded with 119 total yards as well as a rushing and receiving touchdown each. Though quarterback Desmond Ridder didn’t have his best game, he still managed to complete 18 of his 26 attempts for 242 yards, and 2 TDs.
But it certainly wasn’t all sunshine and daisies for the Bearcat attack last Saturday. The team turned the ball over three times, and Cincinnati’s offense also got bailed out by an officiating gaffe after giving up a scoop-and-score fumble that would have put UCLA within three points in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Their kicker missed a 32-yard field goal, and Ridder threw a pick on a 1st and Goal opportunity that UCLA returned for 66 yards. That would have put the Bruins in field goal range right before the end of the half, but the officials flagged the returner for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Once the offense raced out to a four-score lead last weekend, Ohio State never really got too fancy with their approach to defending Florida Atlantic. Fans should see a much more dynamic defense this Saturday, particularly with how Ohio State uses their bullet packages.
The worst enemy of a ball-control offense is defensive speed, and the Buckeyes are blessed with a front seven that is both big and fast. Even Tuf Borland should have the quickness to keep up in this contest, though I anticipate Pete Werner will be a much more visible presence this week.
Provided the Buckeyes successfully stifle Cincinnati’s run game, it will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and company opt to turn up the pressure on Ridder, or sit back and make him throw into a variety of coverages. Either way, the talent is there for Ohio State to make plays and get the stops they’ll need.
The Bottom Line
Cincinnati is no slouch. Bill Connelly tagged them as 36th nationally after Week 1 in his SP+ rankings; which would place them ahead of the likes of Minnesota (39th), Maryland (41th), and Nebraska (54th). Their defense on paper and on tape appears to be very much legit, and if Ohio State’s offense struggles out of the gate, it could be a long day in Columbus watching Luke Fickell try to Tressellball his way to an emotional upset.
That being said, Ohio State is still supremely talented, and if they’re treating this game with the respect it deserves, they should take the lead first and hold it for the remainder of the game. Provided Fields and the offensive line can keep their composure, the opportunities are going to be there for skill players to make plays out of the backfield and over the top. If Chase Young and the rest of the defense executes in tandem, Ohio State should walk away with what could end up being a very solid win on their early-season resume.