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.
Well, not to totally pat myself on the back (while totally patting myself on the back), but between my ‘Five things to watch” column and the “LGHL Tailgate” podcast, I got a lot of what would be important in Ohio State’s game against Indiana exactly right. The only thing that I didn’t get right was, well, how the game would play out.
I knew what would be the determining factors in the game would be, and I called that Master Teague would have a career day. But I also completely bombed on my score prediction, going 52-21. Obviously early in the third quarter, I was feeling good. But that’s when things went down hill.
So, let’s take a look back at what I was looking for in the game, and what it eventually showed me.
1) Justin Fields’ Perfection
Well, the air of Justin Fields’ perfection has officially be shattered following his three-interception performance against Indiana on Saturday. Despite throwing for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Fields seemed to be swimming upstream for most of the game, thwarted by Indiana’s never-ending blitzes, waiting for plays to develop for far longer than his offensive line was giving him.
I think that Indiana might have provided a blueprint for how this Ohio State team can be beaten, and that is to constantly apply as much pressure as possible, making it difficult for Fields to get the ball down field to Chris Olave and/or Garrett Wilson.
But that brings me to the question of why was Fields consistently looking to throw the ball downfield, despite all of the pressure that he was under? Was it play calling on Ryan Day’s part, or was it pride and/or stubbornness from Fields? Maybe a little of both?
quick pass, seems like it would be smart to do that against like 14-man rushes.— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 21, 2020
The one good thing about somebody exposing a blueprint for how to beat you with four games left before the playoff is that you have time to fix it. Unlike some of the issues on the defensive side of the ball that might not be as easily remedied, to me, the issues that Fields had on Saturday afternoon can be addressed by bringing back some of the short crossing routes, mesh routes, screens, dump offs to the talented tight ends, and other seemingly obvious play-calling adjustments.
The other thing that should help is Fields taking the next step in his evolution as a quarterback and being more willing to take the shorter, less flashy play, rather than needing to hit the home run every time.
This is what propelled Dwayne Haskins to the most dominant passing season in Big Ten history in 2018. If Fields and Day are able to effectively mix the short and intermediate passing game into the arsenal before they play Clemson, Alabama, Notre Dame, or whomever in the national semifinals, that could really help negate the inevitable onslaught of pressure that defenses will throw at them.
2) Secondary Improvement
LOL. There has not been any secondary improvement. Michael Penix Jr. threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns against the Ohio State defense on Saturday. There are both some serious schematic and personnel issues in Ohio State’s secondary right now, and while I think that Kerry Coombs absolutely has to make adjustments to how he asks his guys defend the pass, I’m just not sure that he has the talent to completely right the ship this season.
With Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, and Jordan Fuller all now in the NFL, we knew that the defensive backs would be inexperienced for Ohio State this season, but I, for one, assumed that the talent that OSU always has on the backend would just reload, with the next man up assuming the lofty mantle that his predecessors had set for him.
Shaun Wade couldn't have timed his first career pick-six any better. The Buckeyes needed that. Stopped IU's momentum and go up 42-21. pic.twitter.com/TC2MARXYx5— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 21, 2020
I continue to believe that Shaun Wade will be fine on the outside. Pro Football Focus graded him at a team-high 72.0 in terms of coverage on Saturday, despite giving up 101 yards and a touchdown, thanks in part to the fact that he only allowed four completions on nine targets and had that pick-six. For me, his coverage has been fine, but the issue has been that when his receiver has been targeted, he hasn’t quite been able to out duel him for 50/50 balls. However, I think he is a tough, strong player, so I have to believe that he will get that figured out sooner rather than later.
But, the biggest issues for me on the entire team (let alone just the defense) are the free safety and slot corner positions. Marcus Hooker and Marcus Williamson have been incredibly underwhelming for OSU this year, and I think that Coombs needs to find other guys to take those spots on a more regular basis.
The problem is, if you take them off the field, who do you put in their place? Obviously, the season-ending injuries to Kourt Williams and Cameron Brown have severely hurt the secondary’s depth, and it is showing.
I know that we aren't seeing what's happening in practice, but if I was making the call, I'd see what the young guys were capable of at every position in the secondary not played by Shaun Wade or Josh Proctor.— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 21, 2020
I know experience matters, but it ain't working right now.
The first thought for the free safety position would be Josh Proctor, but there is likely a reason that he didn’t open the season as the starter there, and that gives me pause about moving him from the strong safety/bullet/nickel/whatever he’s doing now position, because, besides Wade, he’s easily having the best season of any OSU DB so far.
So, do you mess that up and move him to the back of the defense? I would prefer that they moved him into the full-time slot corner? He did a good job of limiting yards after the catch against Indiana, giving up only 16 YAC on six completions (and 10 of those came on one catch to running back Stevie Scott III).
So, with Proctor now theoretically at the inside corner, who do we give a shot to at free safety? Hell if I know. Try them all, for all I care. The next four games will be ones in which Coombs can and should experiment with personnel. I’d love to see freshmen Lathan Ransom, Ronnie Hickman, and Bryson Shaw get some run there. At this point, what do you have to lose?
3) Wide Receiver Domination
Despite Fields’ struggles on Saturday, the top two wide receivers were still superb. Garrett Wilson went for a career-high 169 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions (from 10 targets). Chris Olave also eclipsed the century mark with 101 yards on eight catches from nine targets.
Really good route by Wilson, especially while being covered by a linebacker. The Buckeyes up 35-7 three minutes into the second half. pic.twitter.com/KnBewVl7iA— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 21, 2020
And while I get that those two guys are absolutely legit and worthy of every single target, I do believe that one of those evolutions that I mentioned for Fields is for him to start incorporating other WRs into the game. The QB only threw three balls on Saturday to receivers other than Wilson and Olave — two to Jaxon Smith-Njigba and one to Jameson Williams.
I doubt that any DBs in the country can cover Olave and Wilson at the same time, but when they are being bracketed like they were on Saturday, Fields (and to a lesser degree, Day) need to trust the young talent and take the opportunities to pick up yards by throwing them the ball.
4) Can the defensive line pressure Penix?
The Ohio State defense sacked Michael Penix Jr. just twice on Saturday, and yet, they pressured him on 45 of his 51 pass attempts. Penix threw for 305 passing yards while under pressure against the Buckeyes. That is the most for a college quarterback — by a considerable margin — since 2014.
Couple that with the fact that Tommy Togiai led the country in pressures this weekend with 10 and Tyreke Smith was third with seven. And then, Jonathon Cooper was the highest graded defender in the entire Big Ten conference. So, yes, to answer my question, the OSU defensive line did pressure Penix, but it didn’t matter. He had a hell of a game, and was aided by an incredible performance by Ty Frygole who had 218 receiving yards and three TDs on seven catches.
So, I think that the defensive line mostly did its job on Saturday, but like Fields and Wade, they need to take the next step... literally. They need to be just a smidge faster so that they can actually sack the quarterback, not just pressure him.
5) Will the canceled game increase OSU’s intensity?
In a word, no. This game script played out exactly like the others. Ohio State got a 35-7 lead early in the second half, and things started to feel comfortable for the Buckeyes. But from there, they were outscored 28-7 and nearly blew the game.
In the postgame press conference, many of the Buckeye players who were interviewed noted that they needed to figure out a way to stop backsliding in the second half. So, at least they recognize that it’s an issue. How they fix it, I have no idea.
On offense, this wasn’t an example of Day pulling the reins to slow things down — like he did against Rutgers. They continued to look for those deep balls far too often, and didn’t rely on the surprisingly potent running performance from Master Teague like they probably should have.
So, I don’t think that the offense’s issues were due to a lack of intensity or aggression in terms of play-calling, instead, I think it was a lack of creativity. They saw what worked in the first half, and continued to do it in the second, despite the fact that the Hoosier defense had made the adjustments to effectively shut it down.
On the other side of the ball, I honestly don’t know what to say. I believe that the first half was the best that the OSU defense has looked since 2019. They were flying around making plays, tackling was solid, they were laying the wood to ball carriers, it looked like a legit Silver Bullet defense.
But, a few minutes into the third quarter, the wheels kind of came off, and IU began moving the ball at will.
For years, we have seen Ohio State coaches thrive on making halftime adjustments. However, that has not seemed to continue this season. Pair that with an obvious let up from some players after the break, and it becomes a recipe for disaster against he better teams that the Buckeyes are bound to encounter in the playoffs.
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!