For some, today is the culmination of an emotional, up-and-down season that ultimately led to the most beautiful and venerated cathedral of college football outside of the 43210 zip code. For others, today is the disastrous outcome of a season not-so-slowly careening off of a cliff to an inevitable fiery demise.
Whichever vibe you are choosing to carry into this evening’s Rose Bowl (Presented by Capital One Venture X, obvi.), if you’re reading this, chances are that you want the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes to win the game as much as I do. So, as I have throughout the season, I will be virtually sending the OSU coaching staff a few simple, straightforward points to help them leave the San Gabriel Valley with both a shiny trophy and their dignity in hand.
Coming into the Rose Bowl, the Utah defense ranks eighth nationally with 3.23 sacks per game and 12th in tackles for loss with 7.46 per outing. Now, despite the general consensus amongst fans, the Buckeye offense has done a pretty great job of avoiding sacks this year; they are 15th nationally allowing only 1.42 per game. They are even better in the TFLs allowed department, currently sixth in the country giving up jut 3.92 each time out.
But, it sure didn’t always feel that way, as C.J. Stroud seemed to be under pressure on a regular basis. Pro Football Focus ranks Ohio State’s pass blocking 39th nationally, despite OSU allowing sacks/hits/hurries/pressures on 43.0% of the team’s 447 pass attempts.
So the reconfigured offensive line — without the services of NFL-bound Nicholas Petit-Frere — must keep the Utes at bay and Ryan Day has to call plays to get the ball out of Stroud’s hands as quickly as possible.
As our friends over at SBNation’s Utah site Block U have been chronicling, it appears that former Ohio State commit Clark Phillips III might be the only regular starting cornerback available for the Utes today. So, if Stroud can get the ball to whichever talented wide receivers end up playing (I’m assuming Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, and Emeka Egbuka will be the starters), they could exploit the only apparent weakness on the Utah defense — if not the entire team, while also giving Stroud the best opportunity to succeed.
Find competent linebackers
I don’t care if you find them in Al Washington’s linebacker room, from Ohio State’s offense, the transfer portal, OSU’s club rugby team, carrying kegs as a bar-back at a local Pasadena watering hole; just find some freaking linebackers that won’t disgrace the good name and reputation of the venerated Silver Bullets.
The Ohio State LBs have been pretty bad for the better part of four seasons and that is not a good situation to be in when you are facing a team that ran for 64.5% of their rushing yards between the tackles.
In an article that we published earlier today, I said that I could see a situation in which recently converted linebacker Cade Stover could have a big impact on the Rose Bowl this afternoon. If the assumption that the Buckeyes will be going with a traditional three-linebacker formation proves to be correct, having a 6-foot-4, 255-pound former defensive end in the middle of the defense could be helpful for the Buckeyes.
And to be honest, if this move proves to be successful, I will officially petition Ryan Day to instruct new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to construct an entire linebacker room of C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers, and former offensive players. I’m looking at you Master Teague, Kyle McCord, and Dawand Jones.
Start Aggressive, Stay Aggressive, Finish Aggressive
While they’ve all had different little, cutesy titles, this bullet point has almost certainly been the item that has appeared on these lists more than any other... and yet, Day and company have thus far refused to heed my advice, at least when it mattered most.
However, the Buckeyes, on both sides of the ball, are best when they allow their incredible collection of athletes to be the incredible athletes that they are. It is when the coaches get in the way and impose an overly complicated, smartest-guy-in-the-room approach to scheming and play-calling that we end up with slow-footed linebackers covering explosive wide receivers or jet sweeps on 3rd-and-9 despite having the best receiving corps in the country.
Coaches, I love you and want nothing more than for you to bask in the eternal glow of a Rose Bowl victory, so please know that I say this with all of the fondness and affection that my two-sizes-too-small heart will allow: GET OUT OF THE WAY AND LET THE PLAYERS PLAY!
Far too often in recent years, we have seen Ohio State players — especially on defense — appear paralyzed by the game plan; elite, blue-chip athletes who have been rendered operationally useless because either the scheme did not fit their specific, unique talents, or the coaches were completely outclassed by their counterparts, resulting in the players being little more than practice dummies.
Tonight, with literally nothing on the line other than pride and reputation, the coaches have to stop that shit. Utah is an incredibly talented, tough, and well-coached team, but in terms of athletic ability (despite the obvious holes on OSU’s defensive side), the Buckeyes have a distinct advantage; SO USE IT FOR WOODY’S SAKE.
On offense, Day should be using tempo to keep the Utes’ punishing defense on their heels. He should be utilizing the vast array of receiving weapons at his disposal, despite the opt-outs of Wilson and Olave (although the door is still open for the latter to return). Day should also have an entire column on his call sheet of creative ways to get the ball to TreVeyon Henderson. You have the most productive offense in the country, do not allow what it can’t do to get in the way of what it can.
On defense, apply pressure early and often. If that means that the still relatively inexperienced secondary gets occasionally exposed, so be it. I would far prefer the potential benefits of a pass rush led by Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau than the static, come-to-us defensive approach that we’ve seen for most of the season.
That being said, Utah is a running team, and to ensure that the Buckeye defense is not flattened and embarrassed like they were against their rivals, the defensive line and linebackers will need to play with an aggression that goes beyond just play-calling. They will need to have an inherent, deep-seated aggression that comes from inside of them; something that has been glaringly lacking from Buckeye defenders in recent seasons.
If Ohio State is going to be able to get off the field against Utah’s methodical offense, they will need to summon up pugnacious performances from players and coaches unlike what we have seen from them against quality competition all season.
Matt’s Prediction: Ohio State 38, Utah 31
I think that Ohio State will come out with a balanced offensive attack relying more on Henderson than most the season because of the relative lack of experience at the wide receiver position. This will also prevent the Utes from selling out to stop one single aspect of the Buckeye offense.
On defense, the only way that OSU can prevent themselves from being bludgeoned to death by a never-ending series of seven to 15-yard runs is by changing the entire defensive philosophy that they’ve employed all year. Let the players pin your metaphorical ears back and go out and make plays. Utah certainly has a creative offense, and since there is little chance that the defensive coaches can match them on an Xs and Os basis, you might as well rely on the athleticism of your assembled talent; it might be the only shot you’ve got.
Ultimately, both teams will be held to under their season averages in points, but I have to believe (wish, hope, pray) that the Buckeyes will come into this game with a chip on their collective shoulder with something to prove to the college football world. If they do that, their talent should be able to overcome the schematic and coaching deficiencies that have hindered them all season.