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Column: Looking back at five key factors in Oho State’s win over Nebraska

I told you the five things that I was going to watch, and here’s what I saw.

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Every game day this season, I will be picking out five things to watch in that specific contest, and they will be the focus of that day’s column. Then, on Monday, I will go back and see what I learned (if anything) from keying in on those five points.

On Saturday, the now-No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes finally opened their 2020 college football season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a 52-17 beating that provided our first look at this year’s OSU team. With the hindsight of about 48 hours, I’m looking back at the five areas of the contest that I wanted to focus on in Saturday’s game.

1) Trey Sermon

The former Oklahoma Sooner’s first day as an Ohio State Buckeye was... fine. It wasn’t anything special, but it also wasn’t as horrendous as some of the Chicken Littles amongst us might want to lead you to believe. On the day, Trey Sermon ran for 55 yards on 11 carries, and as you math whizzes know, that’s five yards per carry. For some context, in 2018, J.K. Dobbins averaged 4.6 yards per attempt while Mike Weber was at 5.5. However, I don’t think either would claim that was their best season running the ball as a Buckeye.

What I did see from Sermon confirmed what his film showed and what you would expect from a back who has played his entire career to this point in the Big 12; he is not going to be a traditional Big Ten, between-the-tackles power back. And yet, the way that Ryan Day and the offensive coaching staff decided to deploy their backs put him in the situation where that’s exactly who he was asked to be.

Throughout the game, Sermon and Master Teague alternated series. This is very similar to the philosophy that Day employed as co-offensive coordinator in 2018 with Dobbins and Weber, and — as evidenced by there middling per carry averages — it didn’t work out so great.

However, when Sermon was allowed to run outside the tackles, he displayed a burst and vision that demonstrated why he can be dangerous in space. For me, that’s how he should be used 34 of the time. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph that Sermon is going to always run outside and Teague is always going to run inside, but there is a reason that the NFL employs “third-down backs,” because they are built to pick up short yardage even (and especially) when the defense knows exactly what they are going to do.

We know that Teague can be that type of back, but I don’t think that Sermon can. So Day shouldn’t try and force him the OU transfer to morph into a B1G back. If you’re going to use both backs fairly equally, abandon the alternating series philosophy, and put both RBs in positions to succeed.

2) Defensive rotation

Of the five things that I watched on Saturday, this is the one that I learned the most from... or perhaps more accurately, the area in which my assumptions were most wrong. So, I’m going to run through just some of those areas.

1) Tuf Borland played the vast majority of snaps at middle linebacker. I thought that we would see a rotation similar to 2019 in which Borland would start, but would essentially split snaps with a backup. Last year it was Baron Browning (who is now starting at the Sam linebacker position), and this year I thought it would be Teradja Mitchell or Dallas Gant. We saw a little from each, but not nearly as much as I would have thought. But, I’ve got more thoughts on Borland in a bit.

2) Despite Haskell Garrett not appearing on Friday’s availability report, I did not expect to see him start, nor did I expect to see him be an immediate difference-maker in the middle of the OSU defensive line. His return to the lineup — especially if he continues to play like he did on Saturday — is a huge addition to the defense. Now I am left to wonder if this very vague tweet might mean that Taron Vincent is next.

3) Leading up to the season opener, we got the feeling that Marcus Hooker would be OSU’s single starting safety, and he was, but I didn’t have a good feel for what I thought Josh Proctor’s role would be in the defense. Sure, he would be the second-string safety, but would the Buckeyes play with two safeties at all? Would Proctor get any run as the “bullet”? Would Proctor and Hooker rotate in the back of the defense?

Without looking at the snap counts, I think that Hooker played the most snaps in the single-high position, but Proctor sure got a lot of PT in the other situations. There was more than a handful of times were you would see the junior DB flying around the line of scrimmage making a play on a ball carrier.

Hooker finished the day with four tackles, while Proctor had three, including one for loss. When I rewatch the game tomorrow, I am going to try and pay closer attention to how these two rotate, but on initial viewing, I felt that both played well enough that it might be time for Ohio State to move to a different defensive look, especially when playing against quarterbacks who provide a running threat.

Now, I have never claimed to be an Xs and Os expert, and obviously the OSU coaching staff doesn’t need to take advice from a blogger who also compares players to characters from “Hamilton” and the MCU, but if Ryan Day asked, I’d recommend mixing in some version of their “bullet”/nickel package as their base.

Play the the four lineman, Pete Werner and Baron Browning at linebacker, then Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks as the outside corners with Marcus Williamson covering the slot. Let Hooker play the free safety position, since the coaches have told us that that position fits his skill set best, and then let Proctor roam a little bit.

I think this gives the defense a better chance at accounting for running quarterbacks, while also having a player whose athleticism can help eliminate chunk plays. Now, I know that the chances of three-year captain Borland basically being benched are pretty slim, but I think a move to get more athletic in his place is long overdue, whether that’s by going to the nickel, or finally letting someone else have a shot in the middle.

3) Wan’dale Robinson

As I mentioned in my Saturday story, Wan’dale Robinson came into the game on Saturday listed as questionable. He did end up playing, but his impact on the game was minimal. He was the Huskers’ leading receiver with six receptions for 49 yards, but 21 of those came on one catch.

The bulk of Nebraska’s offense came from their running quarterbacks, whether they were lined up at QB or not. The combo of Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combined for 164 yards on 21 carries, and they both ripped off a few sizable chunk plays (McCaffrey’s long was for 47, while Martinez’s was for 39).

Stopping running quarterbacks is difficult for everyone in college football, that’s why someone like Justin Fields is so valuable, but as I mentioned above, it is especially difficult when you don’t have athletic linebackers able to make one-on-one plays with the QB. Call me either optimistic or cynical — depending on how you want to view it — but I do think that OSU has players dynamic enough to make those plays, I’m just not sure if they are going to end up getting enough time to prove it.

4) When starters come out

When you look at the final score, Ohio State won this game handily. They covered, they hit the over (barely), if you didn’t watch the game, you’d think that Justin Fields and other first-teamers could have come out mid-third quarter, but they didn’t.

There was only one offensive drive that Fields didn’t lead. That honor went to true-freshman quarterback Jack Miller III who scored that final touchdown that either thrilled or depressed many “interested” viewers. But, despite the Buckeye defense holding Nebraska to just a field goal in the second half, the game never completely felt out of hand. Sure, it felt in control pretty early in the third quarter, but the margin was never enough for Day to feel comfortable calling off the dogs.

And despite Day apologizing to Nebraska head coach Scott Frost for scoring that final touchdown, I think that Day’s threshold of when he considers a game to no longer require the starters will be raised this year. One, with the weirdness of 2020, it is difficult to imagine that any lead is truly safe. And two, he’s going to want to impress the playoff committee, just in case they have any apprehension about putting a team in the final four who only played nine games.

Either way, I would love to see the starters play until the mid-fourth quarter more often than the mid-third this season... that is until one of them gets hurt.

5) How many targets tight ends get

For years, we have been hearing that this is the year that Ohio State’s tight ends would become a bigger part of the team’s offense. Well, if we are judging by the incredibly small sample size of just Saturday’s season-opener, then this year will be yet another in which that doesn’t happen.

On Saturday, TEs Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell each caught a single pass and the two combined for an underwhelming 11 total yards. Fields did target Ruckert on one other pass; he threw a fastball well ahead of his intended target, but was bailed out by a suspect pass interference call against Nebraska’s Cam Taylor-Britt.

I would like to think that Day and company could get two talented athletes like Ruckert and Farrell into the offensive mix somehow, but, to be honest, I just don’t think that it’s a priority for them.

When Fields is so in sync with receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and a defense doesn’t seem to have any ability or desire to stop those two playmakers, why go anywhere else? I do think that against a better defense like Penn State (an overtime loss to Indiana notwithstanding), Fields might rely a bit more heavily on his tight ends, but I certainly wouldn’t put money on it.

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!