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Column: Maintaining differentiation on special teams down the stretch

In other words, making kicks when it counts.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Ohio State at Minnesota

Up to this point in the season, if Ohio State was kicking field goals, something was probably amiss. The Buckeyes boast a powerful offense that gets six points — not three — when they get to the red zone. In fact, Ohio State has scored touchdowns on 17-of-22 red zone possessions, with four field goals. The one remaining possession was a turnover on downs.

Tha success ties the Buckeyes for 10th in the nation in red zone efficiency. Within the Big Ten, only Michigan has a better overall conversion — though the Wolverines have not been as successful at converting touchdowns compared to field goals.

That disparity for Ohio State hasn’t been highly relevant up to now, six games into the season. With the obvious exception of the Buckeyes’ loss to Oregon, games have not exactly come down to field goals, much less extra points, which is what Ohio State fans certainly hope is the case through non-conference play and against Rutgers and Maryland.

Still, even with limited data on the matter, the Buckeyes are the only team in the Big Ten to be perfect on field goals this season, going 6-for-6. They’re also perfect on extra points, connecting on all 39 attempts through six games. Credit for all but two of those 57 points goes to North Carolina transfer kicker Noah Ruggles.

This efficiency in the kicking game will be a boon for the Buckeyes later in the season. While it’s a nice thought that Ohio State will continue to roll to the 40-plus point victories we’ve seen in recent weeks, the Buckeyes are heading into the more challenging stretch of the regular season where they’ll face three top-10 teams, including Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. It also doesn’t help that three of Ohio State’s upcoming opponents (Penn State, Michigan and Purdue) are all in the top-10 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing less than 16 points per game.

In this defensively strong Big Ten, Ohio State can certainly try to lean on its offense, but the Buckeyes can expect to see diminishing returns as the opposing defenses get stronger the deeper they get into the Big Ten schedule. Moving the ball down the field will not be as easy moving forward, and we can reasonably expect to see Ruggles on the field more often, potentially for longer and longer field goal attempts.

In the postseason, this need becomes even more salient. Looking at the presumed Big Ten West champ which, even after last weekend, still looks to be Iowa, things get even more challenging. The best teams in the country this year have great defenses (cough, Georgia). Points are hard to come by. Margins of victory become narrower. Iowa is allowing 14.5 points per game. Cincinnati is giving up 13.7. And Georgia? 6.6. A field goal — or even an extra point — could make the difference in any of these strong defensive matchups.

Early in the season, you don’t know what you don’t know, and relative strength of schedule is hard to gauge. Case in point: Michigan State’s high-flying offense was grounded by an Indiana team that, up to that point, hasn’t boasted a particularly powerful defense. How good someone’s offense or defense is can’t really be determined until a certain point of the season.

Special teams are different. With few exceptions, kickers are consistent (at least to their own abilities) regardless of the team they’re up against — at least, much more so than offensive or defensive units. There are fewer factors impacting a given play compared to what we’d see from offenses or defenses, since the play is consistent from attempt to attempt.

What that means is that we could reasonably expect the special teams we see at the end of the year — at least in terms of success rate — to mirror the success from the beginning of the year. Looking ahead, head coach Ryan Day acknowledged this need for kicking strength during his bye week press conference, saying that “the goal is for them [Ruggles and fellow kicker Jesse Mirco] not to be out there unless for extra points,” adding, “We’re going to need them in the second half of the season.”

However, because Ohio State has been so good at moving the ball, Ruggles’ longest field goal attempt this season has been 44 yards. A troubling statistic from his past, Ruggles went just 3-for-9 on field goals of 40-plus, including 0-for-3 on attempts greater than 50 yards. His career long came in at 49 yards. We really don’t know what Ruggles’ range is moving forward, because he hasn’t been tested.

But what we’ve seen so far is that the Buckeyes have managed to make all the kicks they’ve tried for this season. Moving forward, they’ll need to keep that trend going — because unlike what we’ve seen through six games, those kicks could actually affect the outcome of games in weeks ahead.