For the first time in 657 days, the Ohio State Buckeyes will take to the field of the cathedral of college football, Ohio Stadium, and there will be tens of thousands of fans in the seats cheering them on. After defeating conference foe Minnesota on Thursday night of Week 1, the No. 3 Buckeyes are finally back home in Week 2 to host the No. 12 Oregon Ducks.
Though OSU won 45-31 over the Gophers, it was a far from perfect game as familiar ups and downs hampered Ohio State’s ability to put together a consistent performance. They came out of the gate hot, then the wheels fell off in the second quarter, and then they dominated after halftime. Painful, but predictable.
However, with that game under their belts, there are hopefully some lessons that the Buckeyes and their coaching staff have learned that can be applicable for this afternoon’s contest, and hopefully the rest of the season.
As I explained in the column linked above, I love Ohio State football, so, I am writing this to-do list with the love of a family member sitting their rapscallion of a sibling down for an intervention. It’s all going to be said with love, but I’m going to be brutally honest. I hope you can take it, Buckeyes.
1) Play your best players
While this was an issue that reared its ugly head on both sides of the ball against Minnesota, it was far more prevalent on the OSU defense. Now, I understand that they were filling a lot of holes on that side of the ball, as the Buckeyes are 119th in the country (out of 127) when it comes to returning defensive production, but what we saw in the season opener was more than a little bit silly.
Knowing how much talent had to be replaced, I understand the philosophy that defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was employing with getting as many guys game reps as possible. But here’s the thing, this game was close throughout, waaaaaaay too close for those kind of shenanigans. A one or two score conference game is not the time to be getting jobbers experience.
In the defensive secondary alone, there were 44 game snaps that went to players who arguably did not belong on the field — and many of the guys who did deserve their shots wouldn’t have if a bunch of starters weren’t injured. When you throw in the linebackers, you have to start to question whether or not the coaches actually know who their best players are or not.
Now certainly, the coaches have a much better idea as to the capabilities and specific gifts of the individual players than we do, but what we saw on FOX a week and a half ago made it fairly clear that when it comes to the linebackers, Teradja Mitchell and Cody Simon were the best of the bunch. Now, of course, with the sudden eligibility of Palaie Gaoteote, that could change, but with all due respect for “Tuf Borland 2.0” Tommy Eichenberg, Dallas Gant, and the newly converted RB to LB Steele Chambers, they just didn’t seem ready for prime time.
Obviously there needs to be a rotation to some extent, but the days of starting a guy at middle linebacker when his best quality is “effort,” should be so far in the rearview mirror at Ohio State that even the backup camera can’t see them. The right play for the LBs is to start Mitchell and Simon and bring them out only when you absolutely have to, — unless Gaoteote is ready to go, in which case you can get him some run as well.
In the secondary, it’s a little more complicated as both starting corners, Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown, were out against the Gophers. We won’t have the official availability report until 9 a.m. ET today, but the general vibe based on postgame comments by Ryan Day is that Banks is likely to go and Brown ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Then there’s the additional complicating factor of starting safety Josh Proctor being injured late in the Minnesota game. Rumors have been running rampant all week about him, but all three starters are believed to have practiced this week, but we don’t know how much or how intensely.
So, my advice to Coach Coombs is the same as it was with the linebackers: Put your best guys out there and leave them out there. Obviously if the three first-teamers are healthy enough to go, that takes care of three spots, and then you complete the set with Ronnie Hickman and Lathan Ransom as the scheme requires.
However, if any of Proctor, Banks, or Brown can’t go, choose their replacements wisely. The coaches have been pumping up “Safety Tuf Borland” Bryson Shaw all week, making me worried that he could be the recipient of a lot of snaps today. I think that would be a mistake.
In his (admittedly) limited playing time against Minnesota, the sophomore looked slow and out of place far too often. Again, I’m not an expert here, but if Proctor isn’t able to play, move Hickman back to the free safety position — something they did at times in the opener — and let Kourt Williams and Craig Young work at the bullet position. I know that OSU is likely to employ more Nickel against the Ducks, so Young might not be ideal for that situation as a converted LB, and we know that Williams is still dealing with some injuries, but with the starter out, that seems like the ideal option to me, if it is medically feasible.
At the corner positions, depending on who is available, you limit the rotation to the starters, Denzel Burke, and Ryan Watts as much as possible. The two young DBs were less than perfect against the Gophers, but they both (especially Burke) seemed to get better throughout the game.
There is no silver bullet for the Silver Bullets this season. The linebackers and secondary absolutely MUST improve for the Buckeyes to reach their goals, and that’s just not going to happen if the coaches continue to allow players who don’t belong on the field to eat up valuable, close-game snaps.
The rotations at the position groups absolutely need to be limited to the guys who can get the job done best, even if they aren’t exactly where they need to be yet either.
Now, after reading that vaguely coherent rant on the defense, you probably know what I’m going to say about the offense; there is no excuse for TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams not to get 98% of the the crunch time carries. I understand and appreciate all that Master Teague has done for this team in his two All-Big Ten years in Columbus, but the days of rewarding seniority over ability need to have been gone when Urban Meyer left town.
People forget that Henderson and Williams are both freshmen (one true and one redshirt), and they need all the reps that they can get. Obviously with all running backs, you don’t want to put too much wear on their tires, especially early in the season, but there is no acceptable reason at this point in the year for anyone other than those two to be getting carries until OSU is up by four touchdowns; and even then, I’m not sure that I would be ready to entertain the discussion.
2) Sack the opposing quarterback
Believe it or not, in 2020, Ohio State led the country in creating pressure on the quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus. But here’s the thing, pressure is all well and good in the abstract idea of collapsing a pocket, but in today’s version of football, it doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot if that pressure doesn’t get home and put the quarterback on his back — OSU was a perfectly average 49th nationally in that category last year.
We all know about the hype that some of the Buckeyes’ defensive ends have had recently; from veteran Zach Harrison to true freshmen Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau, everybody is looking for the next Bosa brother or Chase Young. I think that the latter two very well could be that, but given the fact that they combined for 17 snaps in the opener (Tuimoloau- 13, Sawyer- 4), it might not happen immediately.
So, the thing is, as I mentioned above, the Ohio State secondary isn’t exactly great right now, and whether due to injury, scheme, rotation, or just a general dip in recruiting, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to improve this season. So, one of the best ways to help the DBs is to make life a living hell for opposing QBs.
The problem is that that is a very difficult thing to do when you are relying solely on your defensive line to get home. In recent years, the Buckeyes have not employed a tremendous amount of blitzes — presumably to allow as many linebackers and DBs as possible to be in the coverage area to gum up the offense’s routes; and I get that. But it’s not working.
The Gophers, a noted running team, was still able to routinely complete passes seemingly at will. While the Ducks will also be a ground-focus offense this afternoon, they will likely throw more efficiently than Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan did in Week 1.
If the Buckeye secondary is still as banged up as it was last week, Coombs and company would be well served to dial up the blitzes,. Throw something that they haven’t seen on tape at them, confuse the line, and put QB Anthony Brown on the ground. And if you aren’t willing to do that, at least give the defensive ends some Mario Power Up Mushrooms or something, so that they can turn some of those PFF “pressures” into IRL sacks.
3) Slow things down for C.J. Stroud
I said on the Tweeter Machine during the game that in the first half (especially the second quarter), it looked like first-time starter C.J. Stroud was a bit overwhelmed, which is to be expected. It was a night game in a raucous conference stadium and it was raining; so, I get it.
On TV, it appeared that things were moving just a little too quickly for Stroud to get a grasp on. He was regularly missing what appeared to be easy, completable passes that likely would have led to the game looking far different than it did at halftime.
Now, we all know that’s Stroud’s second half stat line was impressive (5-for-8, 236 yards, 3 touchdowns), but let’s be honest, a lot of that was due to the freakish athleticism of his playmakers, namely Garrett Wilson, TreVeyon Henderson, and Chris Olave.
So the question is, how do you slow things down for a freshman quarterback who still needs to grow into the position? We saw Day try to call more screens on Thursday than we have seen in a long time in Columbus, and they worked alright, but I don’t think that they properly utilize the skills of the Buckeyes’ receivers, and I don’t actually believe that those types of short passes do much to get a QB into the flow of the game; he doesn’t have to make nearly as many reads, the timing is very basic, and they are little more than glorified handoffs.
I understand that they can have value in an offensive game plan, but that’s not what we’re talking about; if you want to get Stroud acclimated to big boy football, you’ve got to give him passes that he can complete in the normal flow of the offense.
Three seasons ago, the Buckeyes were also breaking in a first-time starter, and while he was older and had more game experience than Stroud, you know how Day got Dwayne Haskins into games? With passes over the middle, mesh routes, slants, and crossing patterns.
Stroud does not have the deep ball arm of Justin Fields just yet, and while those deep bombs aren’t going to disappear from the OSU offense any time soon, I believe that QB1 would benefit from some of the Haskins passing principles. Give him some simple three-step drops where he has a couple of options over the middle.
We know that the Buckeyes’ complement of receivers are likely to get separation against any defensive back that’s guarding them, so take advantage of that. Why not give the passer the opportunity to get into a rhythm by getting the ball out of his hands quickly, thus building up his confidence and comfort in the system?
Seems like a win-win, both short term and long term.
4) Step on the gas? Step on the gas.
Look, Ohio State is better than Oregon, and they are going to win this game (my prediction is 45-22). But that’s not enough. For years (decades?), the Buckeyes have had this irritating knack for allowing teams to hang around far longer than they should. Sometimes it was because their opponents made comebacks in garbage time, but all too often, it just felt that Ohio State and their coaches didn’t have enough of a killer instinct on either side of the ball to turn a win into a blowout.
We’ve seen this time and time again, especially against ranked teams; OSU will win, but not in the matter that it seems fairly obvious that they are capable of. We’ve also seen it bite them in the proverbial ass, I’m talking about you 2019 CFP semifinals.
But the thing is, if Ohio State wants to truly take the next step up from college football’s second tier and finally stand side by side with Alabama, they are going to have to put a little ruthlessness into the game plan.
I know that all of Buckeye Nation is tired of seeing inferior teams keep it close with the Scarlet and Gray. So, Ryan Day, I’m begging you. Don’t hold back, don’t feel bad for Mario Cristobal’s boys, don’t feel like you have to get the fifth-stringers in, make a freaking statement.
It’s going to be another month before you have another competent opponent (and even that’s in question), so don’t waste this opportunity to stamp your team’s place in the national conversation. The game is at noon ET on FOX, everyone’s eyes will be on The Horseshoe, leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Buckeyes are for real, and that they are a force to be reckoned with.