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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Nebraska game

From Trey Sermon to defensive rotation; from how OSU handles Wan’Dale Robinson to tight end targets.

Ohio State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Every game day of the 2020 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

With any new football season, there are always questions that need answered, but this year is unlike any season that we’ve ever seen before. Therefore, there are even more unknowns that must be sorted out as the Ohio State Buckeyes and Big Ten football returns to play. So, I broke down the top five things that I am interested in watching as the No. 5 Buckeyes host the Nebraska Cornhuskers today at 12 noon ET on FOX.

1) Trey Sermon

When it comes to most highly anticipated players getting ready to make their first appearance for Ohio State, fans either have to rely on high school highlights to get a glimpse at what they’re capable of. However, when it comes to Trey Sermon, he’s in a much different situation.

As a former Oklahoma Sooner, Sermon has three seasons of footage for fans to get excited about. While OU runs a very different offense — against very different defenses — Sermon has proven that he can be an effective playmaker out of the backfield.

In addition to wracking up 2,076 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground in his career, Sermon also has 39 receptions and 3 TDs through the air. So, I am interested to see a few things when it comes to the Buckeyes’ new transfer back. First and foremost, how will he adapt to a different approach in Ryan Day’s offense, and how will he hold up against Big Ten defenses?

Sermon’s 2019 season ended with a leg-injury in early November, but he reportedly is back to 100%. So, if he is good to go, how will his running style translate to his new conference, and how might Day change the game plan to accommodate his new back? Then the other thing that I am anxious to learn is what the split will be with Master Teague in terms of carries.

The third-team All-B1G back is recovering from his own injury, having torn his Achilles tendon on the first day of the pandemic-halted spring practice. However, coaches have indicated that he too is health. So, who will get the start? Sermon or Teague? How will the carries be distributed? Will they ever be on the field together? So many questions, and we are just two hours away from getting answers.

2) Defensive rotation

At all three levels of the Ohio State defense, I am really interested to see who the coaching staff rotates in and out, and how often. The defensive line is probably the most difficult to predict; not only do they have to replace the program’s single-season sack leader in Chase Young on the outside, but injuries on the inside have made DT the thinest position group on the team... I think.

I was very confident in saying that until Friday morning when OSU released its availability report and neither Taron Vincent nor Haskell Garrett were listed anywhere; not as unavailable, and not even as game-time decisions. Reports had indicated that Vincent had been slow to get back to 100% from the torn labrum that kept him out all of 2019, and Garrett WAS SHOT IN THE FACE less than two months ago.

If these two are in fact ready to go and anywhere near fully healthy, throwing them in with Tommy Togiai and Antwuan Jackson should give coach Larry Johnson the type of depth that he is usually relies on at DT.

I am also going to be watching what happens at middle linebacker. With Pete Werner moving from strong-side to weak-side and Baron Browning taking over at Sam, that leaves Tuf Borland as the only linebacker returning to start in the same position that he did last year. But, just because Borland starts, doesn’t mean that he is going to be the one getting the bulk of the playing time in the middle.

Last season, Browning actually averaged more snaps per game than Borland did, despite not being a starter. However, with him now on the outside, could that open up an opportunity for someone like Teradja Mitchell or Dallas Gant to split snaps with Tuf?

Then we come to secondary; with Kerry Coombs back calling the shots on the Buckeyes’ back end, I am very interested to see how he works with an inexperienced secondary. Obviously, having Shaun Wade back is a huge boon for the Buckeyes, but we know that he will be playing on the outside more this season as opposed to locking down the slot like he did in 2019. So he will have to adjust to playing a new position.

It looks like Sevyn Banks will start at the other outside CB spot, and Marcus Williamson will man the inside. But, I do wonder if given Wade’s experience in the slot, if Coombs might have his best DB shadow the opponents’ best receiver, wherever he might line up on the field.

I’m also going to be focusing on how much time players like Tyreke Johnson, Cam Brown, and even freshman Ryan Watts get on the field. As we know, if Coombs deems you worthy to start at corner, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to end up in the league. So who he gets in the game early in the season, should tell us a lot about the depth and future of the position.

3) Wan’dale Robinson

During his freshman year in 2019, wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson did a little bit of everything for the Huskers. In addition to being the team’s second-leading receiver in both receptions (40) and yards (453), due to a spat of injuries, he was also Nebraska’a second-leading rusher in both attempts (88) and yards (340).

This season, however, he is expected to be featured far more heavily from his natural position in the slot. As I am sure you do not need reminding, the OSU defense does have a history of not being great at stopping explosive WRs from the slot — not to mention ones whose first names rhyme with “Wan’Dale.”

However, it was reported on Friday that Robinson is questionable for the game today, due to an undisclosed injury. So, I am very interested to see a) if he plays, and b) if he does, how the Buckeyes’ reconfigured defensive secondary will look to cover and shut down the dynamic playmaker.

Check out some of Wan’Dale’s highlights from last season if you want something to worry about before the game kicks off in a few hours.

4) When starters come out

Last season, the Buckeyes so thoroughly dominated their opponents that games were often more or less in hand by halftime. And while there were a few minor exceptions in either direction, for the most part, Ryan Day would have the bulk of his starters out by the middle of the third quarter.

However, that was last year, and if there’s anything that we’ve learned from the first 10 months of 2020, it’s that this year ain’t nothing like last year. With all due respect to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, I do believe that the Buckeyes will have today’s game in hand by some point in the third quarter, but, I am not as convinced that Day will be pulling his starters in the same way that he did in 2019.

With the eventual Big Ten champion only playing nine games compared to 11 or 12 for the champs of other conferences, the Buckeyes might have to do a little extra to impress the College Football Playoff committee. So, I think that there is strategic value for Day to keeping OSU’s starters in the game longer than he might normally be comfortable with. It doesn’t need to be deep into the fourth quarter, but an extra drive or two in a game that you’re dominating could have a huge impact on the scoreboard.

The sister point to this one is how Day calls plays once the backups are in. Will he go the traditional route and effectively run the clock out, or will he allow his second-string continue to try and score as often as possible against opponents?

5) How many targets tight ends get

In our LGHL staff predictions for the season, we were all grouped fairly closely together on most of the questions, except when it came to our predicted totals for tight end catches on the season. Last year, four TEs combined for 25 receptions, and for this year our contributors predicted anywhere from 20 to 60 catches for the position group in this season. That’s right, 60!

Now, it is not uncommon for Ohio State coaches to talk up tight ends before a season, in fact it is almost like an offseason right of passage. If there aren’t articles being written about this finally being the year that OSU’s offense starts utilizing its talented tight ends, then is it really even football season?

This year is no different, Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert are both incredibly talented players, heck, Ruckert was the No. 37 player overall in the 2018 recruiting class. If the running game is not as effective as it was with J.K. Dobbins in the backfield last year, I could see the TEs — along with Garrett Wilson in the slot — providing a few more quick outlets for Fields on mesh routes this season.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!