Believe it or not, we are now halfway through Ohio State’s “regular” season. Despite the fact that the Buckeyes have only played three games — the equivalent of the non-conference slate in a regular season — after having last week’s Maryland game canceled, the Buckeyes are four weeks into an eight-week schedule.
So, since the Buckeyes have experienced all types of ups and downs through their first three games — especially in the far-from-perfect contests against Penn State and Rutgers — I figured that now would be a good time to take a look at each of the position groups to see how worried OSU fans should be about them.
I’m going to start with the much more positive offensive side of the ball today, before getting into the more messy defensive groups tomorrow.
For this exercise, I have worked out my own grading system based on the current B1G East standings.
Penn State (0-4) = Peak worry
Michigan (1-3) = Extremely worried; we’re teetering on the edge of an abyss
Rutgers (1-3) = Kind of worried, there was optimism, but it’s fading
Michigan State (1-3) = Vaguely worried; we knew this was coming, but hopefully it won’t last long
Maryland (2-1) = Not really worried, things could creep up, but overall it’s great so far
Indiana (4-0) = Not worried at all
Level of Worry: Maryland
Let’s start with this: Justin Fields is the perfect quarterback. He is 72-for-83 on the season for 908 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has continued to show the impressive accuracy and arm strength that was evident during the 2019 season, but his biggest improvement has been in his development as an elite-level student of the game.
Fields has seemingly increased his decision making speed, and is now able to process what is going on in front of him with much more specificity. Last year, it was not uncommon for OSU’s QB to focus on one receiver from snap to throw. However, in 2020, his command of the offense and understanding of different defensive schemes being used against him has allowed him to a) identify the best receiver to throw to, and b) influence defenders with his eyes and body mechanics.
Wilson was Fields' third option on that second down pass. You can see Fields going through his progressions and finding the right receiver. pic.twitter.com/D9O9RDWZFa— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 8, 2020
As I am sure you have heard by now, Fields has thrown as many touchdowns (11) and he has incompletions (also 11) and has yet to throw an interception <knocks on wood>. Fields leads the country in quarterback rating by five points over Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby, and by 12 points over Alabama’s Mac Jones who is in third place.
So, you might be asking, if Fields is as perfect of a quarterback specimen as I seem to believe he is, why am I still saying that fans should have a little Maryland level of worry? Well, it’s certainly not because of Fields; instead it is what is behind Fields.
Three games into the season, and not a single person has thrown a pass for the Buckeyes who is not god’s gift to quarterbacking. While I love seeing Fields being able to pad his stats for a Heisman Trophy run, I am certain that playing nearly every snap of every game was not the plan that Ryan Day had in mind when the season started.
While I think that Jack Miller III and C.J. Stroud will both be at least solid college quarterbacks, to feel fully confident in the position group this season, I’d like to see them get at least a throw under their belts.
Level of Worry: Rutgers
Look, the OSU running backs aren’t great this year, and we kind of knew they weren’t going to be great coming into the season. But if I’m being honest, they’re still worse than I anticipated. There was a lot of optimism that Trey Sermon would bring an explosive dimension to the running game that would pair nicely with Master Teague’s between-the-tackles strength.
However, while Teague has been mostly as advertised, Sermon has essentially been a bust thus far. While there are still (hopefully) seven games left on the schedule for him to work himself into a valuable member of the backfield, I am on the record believing that Teague should now be getting the majority of the carries, and that other, more dynamic backs like Steele Chambers and Demario McCall (#FreeDemario) should be given opportunities to complement the more traditional, three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust back.
I don’t think that OSU needs to have a running game to rival Wisconsin’s to win a national title, but giving defenses reason to think about something other than how to stop Fields through the air will be vital as the season progresses.
Level of Worry: Indiana
The way that Ryan Day and Brian Hartline have used the OSU receivers this season has been different than I anticipated. I expected them to lean on the depth of talent in the WR room to stretch opposing defenses to a breaking point, but that hasn’t exactly happened. Instead, we’ve seen an absolutely dominating three games from Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
From the slot, Wilson leads the B1G in receiving yards per game, and on the outside Olave is tied for second in TD receptions. What’s been most impressive about both receivers is that they seem to be able to do it all this season; they can beat man-to-man defenders to get open, they can find holes in zones, and they can make ridiculously impressive contested catches as well.
And while we haven’t seen as much from Jameson Williams, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, and Gee Scott Jr. as I thought we would, the former two have shown themselves very capable of of competing and producing on this level in the early goings of the season.
So, while I dinged the QB position a bit because of a lack of depth, I think the WR room has it in spades, but just hasn’t had to deploy yet.
Level of Worry: Maryland
I have always thought that to assume anything out of Ohio State tight ends is foolish. Sure, you can generally count on them to block well, but anything on the skilled side of their job description probably isn’t going to happen... until it does.
Jeremy Ruckert has three touchdowns through three games this year, which seems like something out of a fairy tale for OSU. So, while I wouldn’t say that either the run or pass blocking has been great from Ruckert or Luke Farrell, the contributions in the receiving game bring this one up a notch for me.
Any time you can give a QB like Fields another big target to throw to, it can only be a positive.
Level of Worry: Maryland (with a Michigan State rising)
This is the position group on the offensive side of the ball that has been the most disappointing for me thus far. I firmly believed that with the returning veterans and young talent, the OSU o-line would be one in the best in the country, and while they still might be come season’s end, they haven’t shown really anything close to that yet.
Furthermore, I assumed that the interior would be a strength for the Bucks, with Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers returning and the former five-star Harry Miller joining the starting lineup. At tackle, you had Thayer Munford — who has been plagued by injuries in recent years — and Nicholas Petit-Frere, who was in his third year, but had yet to have an impact, so I thought that the outside of the line could be the weak spot. Boy was I wrong.
Munford and NPF are now arguably the best pair of tackles in the country, allowing only a single quarterback pressure all season, while Davis has taken a step back from his All-American expectations, Myers has been serviceable at best, and Miller has struggled at times, both in pass blocking and with penalties.
While the offensive line is 10th in the conference in terms of sacks allowed per game (2.33), some of that falls on Fields’ shoulders, as he is hesitant to just throw the ball away without exhausting all options to make a play.
But in terms of run blocking, with ball-carriers who don’t appear to have the ability to make plays on their own, they are going to be reliant on the line to bust open as big of holes as possible, and — through three games — that just hasn’t been in the cards for this unit; which is part of the reason that the running game has been so underwhelming thus far.
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!