Thanks to an explosive offense, a much-improved defense, and multiple blowouts, the Ohio State Buckeyes are currently ranked second in the country — and trending upward. One could make an argument that OSU is actually deserving of the top spot, and that individual would be undeniably and unequivocally correct. However, Georgia is the defending champ, so the Bulldogs are receiving the benefit of the doubt for as long as they remain undefeated. We all know who would win a matchup between those two on a neutral field, but let’s not put the cart before the horse here.
Picking a midseason MVP from the Buckeyes is something I found to be quite difficult. I would compare it to picking your favorite child or favorite pizza. They’re all great, they’re all wonderful, and we love them all the same... Unless your child creates stupid TikToks, and/or said pizza has pineapple on top. In that case, they just don’t belong in the favorite or valuable conversation.
Getting back to the original point: I wanted to recognize an offensive and defensive MVP at the midway mark, and there were plenty of stars to choose from. Multiple players at various position groups have exceeded expectations, and a few have even gone from “some guy” to “the guy” — looking at you, Cade Stover. I also made a difficult decision to leave C.J. Stroud out of the running, because pounding the table for the clear Heisman favorite did not sound like it would make for an interesting read.
But without further ado...
Midseason Defensive MVP — Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg
Alright, so maybe this one was a little too obvious, but how can you not respect the hell out of what Eichenberg has brought to the Ohio State defense in 2022? Occasionally referred to as Tommy Gun or The Quiet Storm – by me, and perhaps others – this fourth-year linebacker from Cleveland has developed into a consistent three-down linebacker, who leads by example and acts as a coach on the field for Jim Knowles’ defense. Not only does he lead the Buckeyes in tackles by a wide margin (50), but he is also second in both tackles for loss (6) and sacks (2.5). Quite the turnaround for a player who some fans were hoping would be benched last season.
Eichenberg began to turn a corner during the second half of 2021, but I don’t think fans and media alike really started to buy in until his outstanding Rose Bowl performance. He was credited with 17 tackles against Utah, accounting for nearly 25 percent of his season total, in a game during which he ended up playing a very pivotal role. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba received most of the attention – which, fair enough – but it was Eichenberg who led a defensive charge in the second half. And without their Mike LB, the Buckeyes might have given up 50+. Instead, the Utes were limited to just 10 points after the half, affording Stroud and JSN an opportunity to complete the comeback.
By contrast, Eichenberg was relatively quiet in last year’s losses to Oregon and TTUN, further highlighting his importance to the defense. In those two games, he had a combined nine tackles, and the Buckeyes were literally trampled on. Now, he was inexperienced and there were a multitude of other issues, but the point remains. Eichenberg’s play could often help dictate the overall performance of the defense. That certainly rings true this season, as the quiet leader is setting the tone for a much-improved unit.
Knowles and Eichenberg’s teammates have consistently praised the LB for not only his play between the lines, but also his leadership and calm demeanor in the defensive huddle, locker room, weight room, and/or meeting rooms. He is a man of few words, but when he does speak, teammates listen. Such leadership was lacking over the past few years, especially from such a vital position. I say vital, because linebackers help organize and direct, and Ohio State’s “air traffic controllers” were in no position to do either under Kerry Coombs and Al Washington. With Eichenberg now dialed in and performing at a high level, his leadership packs a heavier punch.
Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg said the Badgers "are going to wish they never made the trip pic.twitter.com/TNSo9oNq3f— Lantern Sports (@LanternSports) September 24, 2022
Aside from Michael Hall Jr., who has been fantastic when called upon, I don’t know who else would even be in the running for OSU’s defensive MVP. And that’s saying something, because the unit as a whole has been lights-out! It comes down to the fact that Eichenberg is performing at a high level week in and week out, while providing the intangible of exemplary leadership. Not only is he the frontrunner for this group’s midseason MVP, but I would also argue that he is a prime candidate for First Team All-Big Ten at the end of year.
Eichenberg has worked his tail off to earn a role and recognition, so he (deservingly) takes the vote on the defensive side of the ball.
Midseason Offensive MVP(s) — OL Paris Johnson Jr., Donovan Jackson, Luke Wypler, Matthew Jones, Dawand Jones
That’s right, baby! Time to recognize the big guys up front! From left to right, Johnson, Jackson, Wypler, Jones, and Jones have formed a nearly impenetrable brick wall through six games, protecting Stroud and opening up gaping holes for TreVeyon Henderson and/or Miyan Williams. These players may never receive the credit they deserve, so I wanted to shine a light on their performance and contribution(s) with this piece. The offensive line has been flat-out dominant, and it could be argued that they are the engine powering Ohio State’s supped-up sportscar of an offense.
To keep this analogy going, imagine Stroud as the driver or even the steering wheel itself. Henderson and Williams are the tires — low pro or all-terrain, it doesn’t matter, they’ll get the job done. The pass catchers are the keys, the gas, whatever else you want to deem essential. But nobody is going anywhere, none of it matters, if the engine is shot. And this is not to say Stroud and Co. would be inefficient on their own. I could have picked half a dozen skill players here. I just think it is hard to overstate how truly important and valuable the Buckeyes’ OL has been in 2022.
Like I did with Eichenberg, I want to look back at the 2021 season as a reference point. Johnson Jr., Wypler, and Dawand Jones all played major roles, while being flanked by Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere — two guys who are already experiencing NFL success as rookies. The team averaged 181 rush yards per game, on 5.8 yards per carry, but there was often something missing. An edge of sorts. Ryan Day’s offense had issues in short yardage and goal-to-go situations, and a nice little chuck of the total rushing yards came via big plays by Henderson. There were too many negative or no-gain plays, as opposed to this season, during which every rushing attempt seems to go for at least six or seven yards. Four yards and a cloud of dust fans, eat your heart out.
On the season, Henderson, Williams, and Dallan Hayden have combined to average 6.4 YPC, which is actually right in-line with Ohio State’s top backs averaged last year. But like I said, the consistency with which they are running has been much better. And the short yardage woes seem to be a thing of the past. Even better, the backs are not the only players benefitting from an improved, more cohesive unit up front.
Stroud is hardly being touched. The OSU QB has been sacked just four times in six games, putting him on pace to go down approximately 8-10 times. In 2021, Stroud was sacked 13 times, implying that the offense has been a tad better in pass blocking as well. In both facets, the group up front has been outstanding.
Paris Johnson Jr hasn’t allowed a sack since the 2020 season— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 5, 2022
611 consecutive pass-block snaps without allowing a sack pic.twitter.com/BQq3LaX18m
More than anything else, this Ohio State OL is physically dominating and imposing their will on opponents. They are the ones pushing people around and playing with a mean streak. The unit seems to have a confidence or cockiness about them that was non-existent last year, when TTUN stuffed them in a locker. That was tough to watch. But Buckeye fans should expect a different result in the trenches this go-round.
Absent individual stats, it is hard to quantify just how valuable this OL has been, but I am going with my heart and my head on this one. The team stats speak for themselves, as do the results and confident enthusiasm with which this entire offense is buzzing. Johnson Jr., Jackson, Wypler, Jones, and Jones are playing at level we have not seen in Columbus during the past few seasons, which in my mind makes them deserving of the midseason crown. And Justin Frye is coaching them up, so kudos to him as well. If they continue to dominate, I see a Joe Moore award in this group’s future, but I am sure they would gladly settle for 15 wins.
Here’s to a great second half, and Go Bucks!