Game day for the Ohio State Buckeyes is on the horizon. Approaching Week 2 of the regular season, the Cincinnati Bearcats become the second team in as many weeks to make the trek for a football game inside historic Ohio Stadium.
Both teams secured wins in Week 1, but there’s still improvements to be made. The Buckeyes cruised to a 45-21 win against Florida Atlantic, but failed to cover a 28-point spread after running away with a 28-0 lead midway through the first quarter. Cincinnati opened their season at home against UCLA, and while sloppiness highlighted the game at times, the Bearcats stymied the Bruins’ rushing game—holding them to 62 yards on the ground—in a 24-14 victory.
On Thursday, we focused on the offensive player to watch on Luke Fickell’s Cincy squad. Now, let’s look a the defensive player to watch out for: linebacker Bryan Wright.
Listed as a graduate, experience is the big key in this weekend’s contest. To begin the season, Wright collected seven tackles (four solo) versus UCLA, and had one pass breakup in front of the home crowd at Nippert Stadium. On a micro level, Wright had the second most tackles in that game, only trailing safety Darrick Forrest’s nine. On a macro level, the win against UCLA highlighted the coaching style of Fickell. Early in the week, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day spoke highly of the former OSU interim head coach:
Again I think they are well-coached. They are disciplined. They play hard. You can tell that they are a veteran group in terms of they play with older guys.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman is part of the Bearcat brain trust that is looking to improve from last season’s 11-2 mark. Between Fickell and Freeman coaching abilities, Wright can have a breakout season at LB—and another solid game could be what elevates him.
Last season, Wright was one of the defensive leaders for the Bearcats. He had the third most tackles on the team (55), and led UC in quarterback hits with six. On top of that, the Virginia native tallied five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He can do a little bit of everything, and that versatility may prove to be highly beneficial against a Buckeye offense that has a relatively new QB under center.
There should be incremental improvements from Fields since last week’s victory against Florida Atlantic. At the same time, there’ll be more on tape for opponents to understand. While it’s not a gold mine by any stretch of the imagination, Fickell and the defensive minds at Cincinnati have a glimpse of what Fields can do in the Day system. Fields is still learning the offense, but his tendency is to try and salvage plays on the ground. For a blitzing linebacker or defender rushing in to tackle Fields, that’s an opportunity to force the Buckeyes into lost yardage.
We saw a little of what the Buckeye offense can do—especially when everything is clicking. On the ground and in the air, Fields can make plays. The double option with Fields proved to be absolutely devastating to a defense that bites to the wrong carrier.
The first touchdown of the season came off a run-run option, chewing up 51 yards of real estate in the proces. For Wright, or any of the linebackers for that matter, they’ll need to minimize the success OSU has in those option plays. Notice how I said minimize, not stop. Between Fields and J.K. Dobbins, there is too much talent (and too much speed) to completely derail the option game. Then you throw in K.J. Hill and possibly a tight end that can block, and now you have all sorts of problems containing the Buckeye offense. The big advantage for UC is that Fickell coached with Urban Meyer, and understands how the RPO/option works. While Day isn’t Meyer, the option packages are still part of the Ohio State offense.
Now, if the offensive line wins in the trenches, I don’t see how the Cincinnati defense has a chance of shutting down the Buckeyes. FAU was able to make progress and minimize the damage the OSU offense could do in the final three quarters, however, the Owls spotted the Bucks 28 points in the first eight minutes of the game. Solid linebacking play — with Wright leading the way — is what will keep UC treading water. Forcing rushed throws, succeeding in the blitz, limiting yards when Fields gets out of the pocket, and stopping pass plays over the middle are the main tasks on the checklist. It’s a tall task for the Bearcats, but in order to beat OSU, you have to check off each box.
Saturday will be a real test for everyone involved. For the Buckeyes, a convincing win sets the tone for how the rest of the season will go, and has potential to ease the fanbases’ concerns after sleepwalking the final three quarters against FAU. For the Bearcats, this game could be the one that leaps them into clear-cut contender status for a New Year’s Six bowl opportunity. The season has just begun, but a convincing win on the résumé will do wonders when bowl bids are being sent out.
If Cincy were to pull out the victory, a great all-around game by the defense will be anchored by Wright.