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Ohio State vs. Tulsa: 2021 game preview and prediction

The Buckeyes look to bounce back against the Golden Hurricane Saturday in Columbus.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Tulsa at Oklahoma State Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yikes. It’s been literal years since Ohio State dropped a regular season game. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2018 when Urban Meyer, Dwayne Haskins and the rest of the Buckeyes fell into a trap on the road at Purdue. The last time Ohio State lost at home? When Oklahoma came to the Horseshoe in 2017. You remember, that time Baker Mayfield planted an Oklahoma flag on the 50-yard line and Buckeye Nation collectively barfed in disgust.

No, Ohio State is not used to losing. And the question of course remains on how the Buckeyes will bounce back. If the last decade or so is any indication, Ohio State doesn’t tend to stay down for long.

In other words, poor Tulsa.

The No. 9 Ohio State Buckeyes are looking to get back to their winning ways when they face the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Columbus. And the squad has a lot to prove to the rest of the college football universe.


Hang on...Ohio State lost?

Yep. It’s unbelievable, right? We’re still digesting it. The Buckeyes fell in their second game of the season to the now-No. 4 Oregon Ducks 35-28 — their first-ever loss in the series with Oregon. Ohio State never led in the matchup, and their defensive struggles have made headlines throughout the sports world.

The Ducks struck first after a scoreless opening quarter on a 10-play touchdown drive, concluding with a touchdown run from running back CJ Verdell. While the Buckeyes responded with a touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson, Oregon found the end zone one more time before halftime to go up by seven.

Things didn’t improve in the third quarter. Verdell scored his third touchdown of the day to put the Ducks up two scores. Jaxon Smith-Njigba hauled in his first career touchdown, but Oregon promptly responded to maintain their advantage.

The Buckeyes narrowed the gap in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough. The defense was finally able to get some stops, and the offense powered through for two touchdowns, but Ohio State couldn’t overcome the two-score deficit in the end.

It wasn’t all bad news for Ohio State though — well, insofar as there can be good news with a loss. CJ Stroud put up a solid performance in his second outing as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, and the collective offense put up 612 yards (well above Oregon’s total).


Oof, and now Ohio State’s got...Tulsa?

Sure do. The Golden Hurricane comes to Columbus with an 0-2 record, having fallen in succession to UC Davis and Oklahoma State. However, the winless record doesn’t tell the whole story. In their season opener, Tulsa fell 19-17 to UC Davis in a tightly fought matchup as the Aggies pushed by Tulsa with two fourth quarter field goals. Against Oklahoma State, the Golden Hurricane dropped a 28-23 decision, despite once again leading in the fourth quarter.

Of course, Tulsa is coming off a season which saw a berth in its first-ever AAC Championship Game (a three-point loss to Cincinnati) as well as a bowl game (a two-point loss to Mississippi State).

In other words, Tulsa’s recently had problems winning, but the Golden Hurricane has definitely kept things close.


Series history

Ohio State and Tulsa have only faced off one other time in program history, back in 2016, with the Buckeyes emerging with a 48-3 victory. In that matchup, the Ohio State defense came on strong with four picks (including two which were returned for touchdowns).

It was fortunate, because the Buckeyes didn’t have an offensive touchdown until the second half. With a slow offensive start, quarterback JT Barrett finally found the end zone on a rushing touchdown in the third quarter. He’d finish with a meager 149 yards passing and no touchdowns through the air on what was an extremely rainy day.

Fortunately the Buckeyes’ ground game was strong against Tulsa, with Barrett, Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel and others combining for 268 yards on a running-back-by committee approach, with no player breaking the century mark on the ground.


Freeeeeee falling

The Buckeyes will need more offensive fireworks than that outing to recover from a massive drop in the rankings following their loss to Oregon. Nationally, Ohio State fell significantly in the AP Poll, falling from No. 3 to No. 9. Even more depressing is the fact Iowa (yes, Iowa) is ranked in the top-five ahead of Ohio State.

It’s the first time the Buckeyes have had another Big Ten team ranked ahead of them since the final week of the 2018 regular season, when then-No. 11 Ohio State faced off against No. 5 Michigan. We all remember how that turned out.


Down, but not out

Of course, if past precedent is any indication, the Buckeyes are well-positioned to bounce back Saturday. As previously mentioned, the Buckeyes really haven’t lost that much basically this entire millennium (especially in the regular season), but when they have, the next game has generally gone pretty well:

  • Beat Nebraska 36-31 in 2018 (following loss to Purdue)
  • Beat Michigan State 48-3 in 2017 (following loss to Iowa)
  • Beat Army 38-7 in 2017 (following loss to Oklahoma)
  • Beat Northwestern 24-20 in 2016 (following loss to Penn State)
  • Beat Michigan 42-13 in 2015 (following loss to Michigan State)
  • Beat Kent State 66-0 in 2014 (following loss to Virginia Tech)

That also happens to be the cumulative list of regular season losses since Urban Meyer took over as head coach in 2012, which is pretty impressive for a college football program.


A new Day

While the above list is interesting from an anecdotal perspective, the reality is that teams change year in and year out, and what’s happened in the past is no guarantee for what we might see in the future.

On that note, as we can see from the list, the Buckeyes’ loss to Oregon Saturday was head coach Ryan Day’s first regular season loss. The fact we’ve made it through multiple seasons without being in this situation is a testament to Day’s coaching prowess. However, especially since Ohio State is Day’s first and only stop as a head coach, it also means that Day’s individual response to a loss remains to be seen.


Restructuring...you know what that means

On that note, and not to induce memories of “Office Space,” but Ohio State may be bringing in consultants to their next staff meeting.

“Now it’s not just a single game, it’s a little bit of a pattern,” Day said Tuesday. “We took a long, hard look the last 48-hours at everything that’s going on, and certainly going to make some adjustments here.”

The pattern Day was speaking of extends all the way back to last season, when Ohio State’s defense struggled against Alabama. However, since pretty much every defense struggled against Alabama, it didn’t seem as much a cause for concern.

That being said, with the Buckeyes giving up serious yards against Minnesota in week one and being cut apart by the Ducks in week two, changes are certainly afoot. While Day hasn’t given any specifics, we can certainly imagine shifts in covering the run and, perhaps, the plays we’ll see called from Kerry Coombs.


Kerry-ing the load

Speaking of which, the criticism surrounding defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was strong and swift following the Buckeyes’ loss to Oregon. And rightly so. The defense was, in a word, terrible. The Ducks’ rushing attack was death by 1,000 cuts, with Oregon averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

And while it makes sense that the pass rush would be less relevant in a matchup that favors the run, it is still surprising that the Ohio State defense didn’t record a single sack against Oregon — the first time that’s happened since the Buckeyes’ 2018 matchup against Michigan State.

Per Day’s comments, things will be shifting in unknown ways against Tulsa and heading into conference play, though many are calling for Coombs to be out from his role, if not immediately, by the end of the season.

But those critiques must be tempered. While defensive play calling has been questionable, there’s little doubt that Coombs is a serious value add to the Ohio State coaching staff. A prolific recruiter, Coombs brought the likes of Chase Young and Jeff Okudah to Columbus and, previously as the defensive backs position coach, built Ohio State into the DB U we know today.

There’s an overlooked piece, though. Coombs’ biggest benefit is his strength in bringing great talent to the defense and less so on his ability to coordinate that talent when it gets on the field. We should note that Coombs was gone from 2018-19, when he was defensive backs coach for the Tennessee Titans. Those two missed recruiting years are evident on the field today, which means the deficiencies we see on defense could be as much due to Coombs’ absence as it is to his presence.


Prognosis for Proctor

And on the note of defensive backs, the latest reports on returning veteran Josh Proctor are not good. The fourth-year safety, one of the anchors of the defensive backfield, is out for the remainder of the season with a fractured leg. Proctor was carted off the field in an air cast in the third quarter of the Buckeyes’ game against Oregon. It was already a rough start to the season for the safety, who had come into the game questionable with an arm injury suffered against Minnesota.

The loss of Proctor puts the lack of depth in the secondary in stark view. The Buckeyes were already thin at defensive back, relying on senior Sevyn Banks to anchor things.


Loud and proud

However, on a more positive note and for the first time since 2019, Ohio State saw a sellout crowd at the Horseshoe. Even for the noon kickoff, the crowd certainly woke up for the fourth quarter, adding something of a 12th man to a defense that (ICYMI) struggled Saturday.

While the afternoon game environment for an AAC opponent might be slightly more subdued, there’s an entire extra season’s worth of pent-up energy among fans, and perhaps we can expect a little extra volume compared to what we’d normally see for a non-premier, non-conference matchup.

...perhaps even moreso, since the Buckeyes are still searching for their first home win of the season.


Also loud and Stroud

Moving over to the offensive side of things, for as much (unwarranted) hate that redshirt freshman CJ Stroud has gotten for his role in Ohio State’s loss Saturday, the quarterback is filling the void left by now-Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields quite well. Stroud earned his second-straight Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor for his performance against Oregon.

Stroud was 35-of-54 passing for 484 yards, three touchdowns and a pick. He certainly looked more comfortable in the pocket than he did in his previous matchup against Minnesota, where he was 13-for-22 for 294 yards, four touchdowns and a pick. Perhaps it was having the home crowd, or simply not having to try to throw his first collegiate pass in the rain, but Stroud certainly showed glimpses of greatness against the Oregon defense. He’ll certainly be looking to continue moving on the up-and-up against Tulsa.


Sharing the wealth

Of course, Stroud needed folks to throw to. The redshirt freshman spread the ball beyond veteran receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, with seven players in total catching at least one pass. While Olave led the way in receptions with an even dozen for 126 yards (pause to admire…), sophomore receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba lived up to his pre-season hype, pulling in seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson was also impressive with seven catches for 117 yards and a score. Very smooth.

With another clear day set for Saturday, expect more big games from the stable of receivers at Stroud’s disposal.


Run and done

While not as potent as the Ducks’ rushing attack last week, Ohio State’s running backs certainly had their own sparks against Oregon, mostly because true freshman TreVeyon Henderson scored his first rushing touchdown as a Buckeye (and the crowd goes wild…). Still, Ohio State totaled a meager 128 yards on the ground, courtesy of Henderson and Miyan Williams.

However, that low total is as much a factor of play calling as performance (the Buckeyes averaged a moderate 4.1 yards per attempt on the ground). Ohio State passed the ball 54 times against Oregon, with just 31 rushing attempts. As Stroud gains confidence, he’ll surely be looking to make plays through the air, but he’s got the support of a young and hungry pair of running backs who can keep opposing defenses on their toes.


More on Montgomery

On the Tulsa side, the Golden Hurricane is led by Philip Montgomery, who has been at the helm at Tulsa since 2015 and amassed a 31-42 record along the way. In just his second season in 2016, Montgomery led the Golden Hurricane to just their 10th 10-win season in program history.

Tulsa is Montgomery’s first head coaching role, having previously come from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach positions at Baylor and Houston. Known for potent offenses, Montgomery coached the likes of Robert Griffin III, Bryce Petty and Case Keenum at various points in his career.


Brin’ it on

The latest quarterback Montgomery is hoping to develop is junior Davis Brin. Brin enters his junior season as a first year starter, having backed up quarterback Zach Smith last season. It’s not been a particularly auspicious start for Brin, who’s totaled just 425 yards, two picks and no touchdowns through two games this season.


A better rushing matchup

Fortunately for the Ohio State defense, they are facing a seemingly less potent rushing attack than they encountered last week against Oregon. Tulsa has rushed for a total of 370 yards and four touchdowns (the team’s only touchdowns this season) through two games.

The key players to watch are junior running back Deneric Prince and senior running back Shamari Brooks, who’ve totaled 185 and 106 yards on the season, respectively.


Rock you like a Hurricane

Sure, Tulsa might not have any wins. But the defense? Not bad at all. The Golden Hurricane held Oklahoma State to 313 yards of total offense, and recorded an interception against the Cowboys.

While Ohio State has shown somewhat more powerful offensive prowess than the likes of Oklahoma State and UC Davis, Tulsa still presents a surprising defense that can contain opponents with relative consistency.


Summary

The odds are certainly not in Tulsa’s favor. The Buckeyes are favored by 24.5 over the Golden Hurricane with 61 points on the over/under. In other words, the pundits are expecting a bloodbath. Stroud has gotten the kinks out and has shown an ability to share the wealth with his receiving corps, and the young running backs on the roster already seem to have outstripped the veteran Master Teague.

While questions (a whole lot of them) remain on the defense, Tulsa does not exactly bring a powerful offensive attack — especially in terms of the running game, which the Buckeyes have struggled to defend. It should be a good week for the defense to reset against a less tricky opponent than they’ve encountered their last five or so outings.

Of course, just like Ohio State is looking to bounce back from an unexpected loss, Tulsa is still looking for its first win of the season. While it’s a longshot (especially for an AAC team on the road against a sellout crowd hungry to watch its team win), the Golden Hurricane have shown glimpses of grandeur the last couple seasons, as well as an ability to keep games — even against Power Five opponents — uncomfortably close.

The Buckeyes are motivated too, though. With one loss on their record already, the already thin margin for error has narrowed even further. Nothing less than perfection for the rest of the season will get them in the College Football Playoff — and there’s still a lot of season left.

But if anyone can do it, it’s Ohio State. We’ve seen it before. Let’s cheer for it again.

LGHL Prediction: Ohio State 57, Tulsa 3