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Column: Garrett Wilson will be the key to Ohio State’s success over Penn State

He’s dangerous no matter where he lines up, but in the slot, he’s practically uncoverable.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

Anyone who watched Ohio State’s 52-17 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers last weekend likely realizes that the strength of the Buckeyes’ offense in 2020 will be a bit different than it was a season ago. In 2019, not only was quarterback Justin Fields still getting used to his new team and coaches (despite how incredible he was), but OSU also had the best running back in the country (don’t @ me) in J.K. Dobbins.

While the jury is still out on how much of Dobbins’ productivity Trey Sermon and Master Teague will be able to replicate this season, it is safe to say that neither of them individually, or likely even cumulatively, will be able to provide the dynamism out of the backfield that the Baltimore Ravens’ rookie did last fall.

So, between a dip in the OSU running attack and Fields now fully entrenched in his role as the Buckeyes’ leader both on and off the field, the importance of the passing game has increased dramatically as OSU chases another College Football Playoff berth. With what is widely believed to be the Buckeyes biggest challenge of the regular season on the horizon, there is one member of Ohio State’s deep and talented receiving corps that could provide the biggest advantage that OSU has going into Happy Valley.

In his first game as the Buckeyes’ slot receiver, sophomore Garrett Wilson went for seven receptions, 129 yards, and a touchdown against the Huskers. In fact, overall, Fields was 20-for-21 for 276 yards and two passing TDs; a near perfect performance. But, the defensive backs for the Penn State Nittany Lions will present a far more daunting challenge than those from Lincoln did.

In their season-opening loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, the Nits defense allowed IU QB Michael Penix Jr. only 170 passing yards on 19-of-36 passing. Cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. combined to make 10 tackles against the Hoosiers and each had a pass break up. But, both of these DBs traditionally play on the outside, leaving OSU’s dynamic inside receiver to go up against a backup CB, linebacker, or safety. Advantage Wilson.

“I feel like when I’m lined up in the slot, I can get some more favorable matchups, and take advantage of it,” Wilson said during a media availability this week. “No matter who I’m matched up against, I hold myself to a higher standard ... I should get open, and make myself available to the quarterback.”

Against Nebraska, Ohio State used a variety of formations to allow Wilson to line up in different spots in order to capitalize on his athletic advantages. For example, on a 4th-and-5 in the first quarter, Wilson was covered by Husker safety Deontai Williams. After five yards, the receiver makes a hard cut inside and leaves his defender in the dust for a first down, despite the pass being deflected.

The Austin, Texas native is far too talented of an athlete to be covered by nearly any safety or linebacker this side of Isaiah Simmons. Additionally, Wilson’s experience playing outside throughout high school and during his first season in Columbus allows him to have a unique skillset that is difficult for anyone to defend.

“I put a big emphasis on being versatile,” Wilson said. “So, you know, when I watch someone like Davante Adams play, they show they can play inside and out; you know good releases off the ball, being able to go track the ball down the field. And then also in the intermediate and in the short game ... I want to be able to do all of those things. Anything that makes you harder to guard, or harder to take away as a defense.”

Wilson showed this versatility on his 42-yard touchdown reception in which he lined up on the outside for one of the few times on Saturday. He then fairly easily beat cornerback Dicaprio Bootle and cruised to the end zone behind Williams who had been sucked in by the tight end route over the middle.

While being able to move Wilson all around the field can create confusion (and fun), what will likely have the biggest impact for the Buckeyes against the Nits on Saturday is his reliability in pressure situations.

The Nittany Lions’ defensive end Shaka Toney had seven tackles against IU, including a pair of sacks. On the other side of the line, Jayson Oweh is on the verge of having a breakout season for the Nits. With those talents on the outside, against the Hoosiers, Penn State blitzed on 12 of IU’s 39 pass attempts, and given Fields’ propensity to hold onto the ball until the last possible second, having a receiver as sure-handed as Wilson working around the line of scrimmage to keep plays alive could become a valuable outlet on Saturday night.

Wilson — who credits the ball handling and going up for rebounds that he learned while playing basketball growing up for a lot of his natural receiver skills — knows that his primary job, no matter where he lines up, is to be available for his QB. He credits the extra practice time created by the pandemic for giving him ample time to get accustomed to his position change and to get in sync with Fields.

“Just having the extended offseason, I feel like we got to work on so many routes,” he said. “Justin doesn’t really miss much, and when he’s on target, I just have to make sure I do my job.”

Make no mistake about it, Garrett Wilson is going to be a matchup nightmare for the entire season, and I would venture to guess that there is no defense in college football who would be able to completely eliminate his specific set of skills.

However, there is no doubt that Penn State’s corners are one of the strengths of their team, but with Chris Olave cleared to return and the bonkers athleticism of “Juiceman” Jameson Williams also on the outside, the PSU DBs will have their hands full on Saturday, which should create opportunities for Wilson to have a sizable impact on the game.

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!