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You’re Nuts: What should be Ohio State’s biggest point of emphasis after the Penn State game?

In which area should the Buckeyes be most focused on improving moving forward?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: What should be Ohio State’s biggest point of emphasis after the Penn State game?

Josh’s Take: Linebacker play

Gene, I wouldn’t say I’m worried about the linebackers, but I do think they are lagging behind the rest of the defense — and that’s not say they haven’t improved. Teradja Mitchell has been steady, Tommy Eichenberg has been serviceable in certain packages, Cody Simon has developed into more than just an athlete, and Steele Chambers has been a revelation — especially for a converted running back. However, the secondary has been the most consistent unit on the defense, and the line has become a real problem for opponents.

The linebackers have just been sort of “meh” all season, not that we had the highest expectations. They are all young, as far as playing time is concerned, so there were bound to be growing pains. But they haven’t made many big plays. I want my linebackers to be difference makers, not “fine” defenders. They have not been a huge detriment to Ohio State’s success, but they have certainly been exposed at times.

Minnesota was running at-will until Mo Ibrahim went down. Against Oregon, the linebackers did not know up from down, left from right, and the Ducks confused them with window dressing and misdirection. Some of what we saw in earlier games can be attributed to experience, scheme, and defensive playcalling, but the first few weeks were rough for the men in the middle.

After settling in against lesser opponents, and with the insertion of Chambers into the lineup, the linebackers seemed like they were trending in the right direction. Unfortunately, we’ve seen them struggle again in recent weeks — in one aspect of the game. The run support has been solid, and all of these linebackers are capable blitzers, but pass coverage has been a different story.

Indiana utilized Peyton Hendershot on the first drive of their game against the Buckeyes, and he ended up getting behind Simon for an early touchdown. After that, for whatever reason, the Hoosiers stopped looking his way with regularity. Jack Tuttle was under pressure and Donaven McCulley struggled to hit water from the beach, but Hendershot could have enjoyed a big day with average quarterback play.

Penn State came to Columbus on Saturday, and Sean Clifford consistently found holes in coverage. When the Nittany Lions attacked the perimeter with quick passes, the linebackers were unable to get outside and make plays. When zone was on the defensive menu, Clifford feasted on open space behind them. Sure, the Buckeyes came away from both games unscathed, but I could see problems down the road — specifically against potent offenses.

Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State and TTUN all present different, unique challenges. Adrian Martinez, despite all his poor decision making, is a mobile quarterback. He has the potential to burn these linebackers with the read option. Purdue doesn’t have the same prolific pass offense they’ve had in recent years, but they will likely look to spread the field and get their guys in space. Michigan State leans on the ground game, but they have a solid group of receivers. TTUN… well, here’s hoping they fold after their first loss, but if not, they have their own explosive rushing attack.

All of these opponents attack differently, but Michigan State and TTUN have at least shown the ability to pivot and get yards where you don’t expect them to. Ohio State linebackers need to learn consistency, and be consistently good in all aspects. They can’t blow assignments and fall victim to misdirection. They can’t be so focused on the opposing team’s run game that they allow chunk plays over their head.

Honestly, the linebackers have exceeded my expectations, but they are not playing well enough to contend for a national title (yet). They lack consistency, and that is the only reason I’m picking on them here. I think the talent is there, and I must give Al Washington some credit, because they have improved significantly from the first few weeks. But I still need plays! The offense is humming, the defensive line is getting pressure, and the secondary – which we expected to struggle – has been a pleasant surprise.

If the Buckeyes are going to reach the CFP, I think we need better, more consistent play from the linebackers.

Gene’s Take: Establishing the run

I agree with Josh that linebacker play has been a problem at times and most of Ohio State’s defensive ‘struggles’ in recent weeks have come when teams attack them over the middle. It seems as though this inexperienced unit doesn’t quite understand how deep or how shallow to drop into a zone, and I don't think any of them can be trusted just yet to be in consistent man coverage against a tight end or slot receiver. This allowed a team like Penn State to game plan a ton of short throws over the middle with regular success, and like Josh alluded to, that could be a big problem against a more potent offense.

To play devils advocate here, I'll get a little nit-picky against an offense that has been one of the nation’s best this season. The Buckeyes were seemingly dropping 50-plus points on everyone with ease before the Nittany Lions came to town, and a big reason for the lower point total for the home team in this one was their inability to get anything going in the ground game. I think there are a number of reasons why this came to be, and Penn State clearly selling out to stop the run definitely played a factor, but there are a handful of things Ohio State could do to better set themselves up for success running the football.

The first issue, and one that was glaring against Penn State, is inconsistency from the offensive line when it comes to run blocking. The Buckeyes’ offensive line has overall been tremendous this season, and has kept a largely clean pocket for C.J. Stroud and the rest of this offense to operate. The pass-blocking has been about as good as you could ask for, but their issues — unsurprisingly — have come in the run blocking department. I say unsurprisingly, because this year’s Ohio State offensive line is built out of four offensive tackles and a center.

Tackles aren’t used to having to clog up the interior or make a pulling block as often as guards do, and as a result we have seen the Buckeyes struggle to create holes for TreVeyon Henderson and the other backs at times. We have seen them open up holes on occasion so big this season that I could run through for a first down, but much like the linebackers, the issues stem from a lack of consistency. It will be interesting to see if Greg Studrawa looks to fix some of these shortcomings by inserting a true interior lineman like Matthew Jones into the lineup, but that would require taking someone off the field, and I'm not sure any one specific player has played poorly enough to put them on the bench.

Another issue stems from Stroud’s seeming reluctance to run the football. We saw something similar happen to Ohio State’s run game when Dwayne Haskins was in at quarterback in 2018. The lack of a threat of the quarterback using his legs allows opposing linebackers to key in on the running back on obvious rushing downs. Combined with Ryan Day’s lack of creativity — at least in the Penn State game, specifically — when it comes to mixing up the types of run plays Ohio State dials up, and what you get is TreVeyon Henderson running headfirst into a litany of defenders at the line of scrimmage.

If Stroud is not going to be a run threat, the Buckeyes are going to have to mix things up. Henderson is clearly a special talent, but there is only so much he can do when running into a brick wall. Ohio State should mix in a lot more runs to the outside where they can allow Henderson to use his great speed and elusiveness in space, and stop trying to stubbornly run straight up the gut time and time again when it isn’t working. In addition, we have seen how dangerous Henderson can be in the screen passing game, so throwing in a couple of those every now and then to keep the linebackers honest wouldn’t hurt either.

I’m not overly concerned about the Ohio State run game, especially with how incredible the five-star freshman has been toting the rock, but we saw what can happen to the Buckeyes’ offense — especially in the red zone — without at least a semi-efficient rushing attack. I think this offensive line will continue to improve as the season goes along, and as long as Ryan Day can become a little less predictable and conservative in his play calling, specifically in the bigger games, TreVeyon Henderson shouldn’t have much of a problem shredding opposing defenses the remainder of the way.