Ohio State started off the first game of the Ryan Day era with a bang, scoring four touchdowns in their first 13 plays, going up 28-0 on Florida Atlantic in the first eight minutes of the game. From there things got a little stagnant for Ohio State, but the fifth ranked team in the country was still able to secure a 45-21 win over the Owls.
Even though Ohio State won by 24 points, they’ll have to be better on Saturday to beat Cincinnati. Ohio State has dominated the series with Cincinnati, but the Buckeyes aren’t taking this Saturday’s matchup with their in-state foe for granted.
Buckeye State domination
Ohio State is 14-2 all-time against Cincinnati, with the only two wins by the Bearcats coming all the way back in 1896 and 1897. The last time the schools met on the gridiron was in 2014, with the Buckeyes earning a 50-28 victory.
The Buckeyes are 183-48-15 all-time against Ohio opponents, winning their last 41 games against other teams from the Buckeye State. Not only does Ohio State play Cincinnati on Saturday, but they’ll take on another team in two weeks when they host Miami (Ohio). Following this season, the Buckeyes have one Ohio team on their schedule each year through 2022.
The last matchup between Ohio State and another school from Ohio came in the 2016 season opener, where the Buckeyes trounced Bowling Green 77-10. The only touchdown by the Falcons came from an interception return for touchdown less than two minutes into the game. The last time Ohio State lost to a team from Ohio came back in 1921 when the Buckeyes lost to Oberlin 7-6.
What stands out most about Saturday’s matchup between the Bearcats and Buckeyes is the connections between the schools in terms of players and coaches. The most obvious connection is Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, who is a 1997 graduate of Ohio State. Fickell was part of nine Big Ten championship teams during his time in Columbus, with two of them coming as a player, and seven of them coming as an assistant coach. The former Ohio State defensive lineman even got a taste of life as a head coach while at Ohio State, bridging the gap between Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer as an interim head coach from the Buckeyes back in 2011.
Mickey Marotti started his college coaching career at Ohio State as a Graduate Assistant Strength Coach in 1987, and following a stop at West Virginia, Marotti spent nearly a decade at Cincinnati as their Head Strength and Conditioning Coach from 1990-98. The Marotti family will be even more divided on Saturday, as Mickey’s son Mitch is currently an operations assistant on Luke Fickell’s staff at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator is someone who is very familiar to Ohio State fans. Marcus Freeman was a four-year starter at linebacker for the Buckeyes from 2005-08. Following his playing career, Freeman got his start in the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant on Jim Tressel’s staff in 2010. Freeman has served as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach since 2017, and is considering one of the up-and-coming stars in the coaching ranks.
Working alongside Freeman in his first year in Cincinnati was Al Washington, who was the defensive line coach of the Bearcats. After a stop in Michigan last year, Washington is now the linebackers coach of the Buckeyes. Much like Freeman, Washington looks to have a bring future ahead of him as a coach.
The most senior member of Luke Fickell’s defensive coaching staff at Cincinnati also has Ohio State ties. Defensive backs coach Jon Tenuta not only held the same role at Ohio State from 1996-99, but he added defensive coordinator to his title during the 2000 season, which was his final year in Columbus. Tenuta was born in Columbus and played high school football at Upper Arlington.
The coaches aren’t the only ones with connections between the schools, as a couple players started their career at Ohio State before transferring to Cincinnati. The most notable name is wide receiver L’Christian “Blue” Smith, who was granted immediately eligibility at Cincinnati by the NCAA after announcing he was transferring in May. Fellow wide receiver Garyn Prater and defensive tackle Joe Schroer also transferred from Ohio State to Cincinnati recently.
An impressive debut
Justin Fields showed early on against Florida Atlantic just why Ohio State was so eager to bring him in to replace a departing Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. Fields opened up Ohio State’s scoring in 2019 with a 51-yard touchdown run, and followed that up with four touchdown passes. The five total touchdowns tied Haskins’ record for most touchdowns in school history by a quarterback in their initial start with the Buckeyes. The Georgia transfer finished with 234 yards passing and 61 yards rushing.
Bringing the Ruckert
The biggest surprise on offense for Ohio State in the victory over Florida Atlantic was their usage of the tight end. Jeremy Ruckert was on the receiving end of Fields’ first touchdown pass as a Buckeye, hauling in a 25-yard pass from the sophomore. Ruckert added another touchdown late in the third quarter, becoming the first Ohio State tight end since Nick Vannett in 2014 against Rutgers to record two touchdown receptions in a game.
Plenty went right Ohio State on offense against Florida Atlantic, but the biggest area of concern for the Buckeyes was how much trouble they had getting running back J.K. Dobbins going. After a sophomore season in which he averaged just 4.6 yards per carry, the running back saw those numbers slip even more in the season opener, gaining just 91 yards on 21 carries.
While it would be easy to blame Ohio State’s offensive line having four new starters this year for Dobbins’ struggles, Fields and the other three Ohio State running backs who saw carries in the game all averaged at least five yards per carry. With Dobbins being the workhorse in the backfield now that Mike Weber is gone, it could spell trouble later in the season if Ohio State isn’t able to get the junior going, which would allow defenses to key on Fields more. On the other hand, if Dobbins returns to 2017 form, it will give opposing defenses fits.
Ohio State might not have been facing a powerful offense like they’ll see with some of their opponents in Big Ten play, but in the season opener the defense showed a lot of improvement over last year. After giving up 67 plays of at least 20 yards last year, the Buckeyes didn’t allow Florida Atlantic a play of at least 20 yards until the third quarter, and only allow one other 20+ yard play the rest of the game.
Ground game grounded
The Buckeyes opening up such a big lead early in the game allowed the Silver Bullets to put the clamps on Florida Atlantic’s rushing attack. For the game, the Owls were limited to 22 yards rushing, marking the lowest total Ohio State allowed on the ground since they gave up just 17 yards rushing to Indiana in 2017. Ohio State was constantly in the backfield, finishing the game with 12 tackles for loss.
Defensive end Chase Young opened up what could be a special junior season with 1.5 sacks against the Owls. Helping Young create havoc in the backfield was linebacker Malik Harrison, who registered a sack and two tackles for loss. Overall, Ohio State was able to sack Florida Atlantic quarterback Chris Robison four times.
Plenty of Bearcats back
Cincinnati enters Saturday’s showdown with Ohio State with a ton of experience on their side. Last year the Bearcats won 11 games for just the third time in school history, and they lost very little from a team that beat Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. Returning to Cincinnati is 14 total starters and 85% of their roster from last year. The returning Bearcats on offense account for over 5,000 yards of total offense from last year.
The Bearcats opened up their 2019 campaign with a 24-14 win over UCLA last Thursday night at Nippert Stadium. Luke Fickell’s team used a smothering defensive attack to top Chip Kelly’s UCLA squad for a second straight season, forcing four turnovers and holding the Bruins to just 218 total yards. Cincinnati dominated the time of possession in the game, holding on to the football for nearly 17 more minutes than the Bruins.
Leading Cincinnati’s offense will be quarterback Desmond Ridder, who is just a sophomore. Ridder was forced into action just a few drives into last year’s season opener against UCLA and didn’t give up the job the rest of the season. The quarterback finished 2018 with 2,445 and 20 touchdowns, which earned him AAC Rookie of the Year honors.
Ridder rolled his strong play into 2019, passing for 242 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over the Bruins. Even more impressive from Ridder’s performance last week against UCLA was he lost his voice in the second quarter, which forced Cincinnati to use silent counts the rest of the game.
Joining Ridder in powering the Cincinnati attack is running back Michael Warren II. After rushing for 324 yards in 2017, Warren made himself known last year with 1,329 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. The junior running back from Toledo was bottled up last week by the Bruins, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry on his 26 carries, but he still was able to record a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown against UCLA.
While he won’t reach the milestone against the Buckeyes, Warren is on pace to become the 13th Cincinnati player in school history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in his career, a number he is 255 yards away from. How Warren performs on Saturday will be a good barometer to see just where Ohio State’s defense stands, because Warren has the ability to break off some big gains if the Buckeye defense isn’t at the top of their game.
Another top tight end
Much like last week, Ohio State’s defense will be going up against an offense that likes to feature their tight end. Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant caught six passes for 79 yards last week against the Buckeyes, and this week Ohio State will look to stop Josiah Deguara. The Cincinnati tight end scored the first touchdown of the year for the Bearcats and finished with four catches for 53 yards. Deguara has now recorded at least one catch in 14 straight games.
Don’t doubt the defense
Cincinnati’s defense might not have many big names, but they certainly have a lot of games who know how to play football. 10 of the top 15 tacklers from last year’s Bearcats defense return this year. What made Cincinnati’s so successful last year was their ability to get off the field. The Bearcats forced opposing offenses into three-and-outs on 41.8% of drives last year.
With new pieces at quarterback and on the offensive line, Ohio State will have to be careful not to make mistakes that could result in turnovers, because the Bearcats will capitalize on those mistakes. Last week Cincinnati forced UCLA into four turnovers, which resulted in 14 points for the Bearcats. Cincinnati’s four turnovers forced is already ahead of last year’s pace when the Bearcats forced 20 overall turnovers in 13 games.
Cincinnati doesn’t a powerful pass rush like Ohio State, but the Bearcats are sound tacklers. Last week Cincinnati was led by safety Darrick Forrest, who recorded nine tackles. Linebacker Bryan Wright is another Bearcat to keep your eye on, as the linebacker was credited with seven tackles in the win over UCLA.
For all of the love Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman rightfully receives, he won’t be the best punter in this game. Cincinnati punter James Smith was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award last year, given annually to the nation’s top punter. The Aussie averaged 46.6 yards per punt last year and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line with 25 of his 59 punts. If Saturday’s game is close, the performances of Smith and Chrisman could end up being the difference.
The oddsmakers have installed Ohio State as a 17-point favorite in this game, which seems a little high. There’s no question that Ohio State is the more talented of the two teams, but Cincinnati has more cohesion because of how many players they have returning from a team that won 11 games last year.
Another factor that should help Cincinnati stay within shouting distance is how many ties to Ohio State the Bearcats have. Head coach Luke Fickell, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, and the rest of the Bearcats will want to put forth a strong effort against a national power.
The effort of Cincinnati won’t be quite enough to hand Ohio State their first loss against an in-state team in nearly 100 years, but it’ll at least keep the score within two touchdowns. The Buckeyes earn a quality win against their toughest non-conference opponents before they move into conference play next week at Indiana.