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: Who does Ohio State need to have a big game in order to beat TTUN?
This year’s version of The Game is already having an effect on my mental stability, and not in a positive manner. We are still nearly a week away, and my pits are constantly sweating, while my anxiety spikes like a carnival high striker game every time somebody mentions TTUN. This upcoming battle between the Wolverines and the good guys could turn out to be one for the ages, which means we as Ohio State fans are rooting for an epic team performance... or several otherworldly individual performances from the Buckeyes’ best players and/or leaders. That is what Gene and I chose to debate this week, and my mind immediately went in a dozen different directions when the topic was brought up.
To be clear: there is a distinct difference between want and need, and my co-host and I are debating who we think needs to have a big performance, to at least increase the likelihood that OSU comes away victorious. I might want Xavier Johnson to have a big game because it would be a cool story, but I don’t think Ohio State needs him to provide a spark. I firmly believe that the Buckeyes’ best shot at winning this one is a handful of stellar performances from their usual suspects — C.J. Stroud, a talented wide receiver, a defensive stalwart, or simply all of the above.
Stroud seems to be the obvious choice, as OSU is not likely to put it on TTUN if he performs poorly, but I did not want to go in that direction. The Heisman candidate does need to be sharp – perhaps more so than in recent weeks – but I think Ohio State’s defense will play an equal or greater role in determining the outcome of this historic matchup. So I am going with that unit’s unquestioned leader: a quiet storm and tackling machine known as Tommy Eichenberg.
Gene, you know my love for Tommy E rolls deep, but he is no longer some ascending middle linebacker who we hope makes a play or two. No, he is the real deal and defensive MVP for a Jim Knowles-coached group which has been integral to this team’s success. I see that playing out once again on Saturday, as he will have multiple responsibilities against the Wolverines. Not only will Eichenberg’s run-stopping prowess will be absolutely essential to slowing down TTUN’s running game, but he will also need to be keenly aware of J.J. McCarthy’s scrambling and broken play-making ability. If the Ohio State LB is not buttoned-up in all facets of his game, it could have a butterfly effect for/on the rest of the Buckeye defense.
When it comes to stopping the run, Eichenberg is not going to set the edge often or be a consistent presence in the interior of the line, but with a team-leading 105 tackles and 12 TFL, he is the team’s ultimate stopper. And it is not particularly close. Tommy Tackle has 39 (!) more stops than his partner in crime, Steele Chambers, who sits in second for the Buckeyes. I would almost go as far as to guarantee 10+ tackles from Eichenberg in this one, otherwise that means TTUN had a very successful day running the ball with either of Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards, or C.J. Stokes.
Oh, and I almost forgot, McCarthy can run it as well. With just 213 yards on the ground this season, the Wolverines’ quarterback might not jump off the page as a true dual-threat, but he is more than capable as a runner. If anything, his legs allow him to find extra time in the pocket and make off-schedule throws when a play breaks down. We have seen mobile QB hurt Ohio State in recent seasons, and McCarthy definitely has the skillset (and natural athleticism) to do the same. That is where Eichenberg comes in.
The Buckeyes’ defensive leader may not be asked to patrol the middle as a traditional spy, but he will have consistent eyes on McCarthy. Chambers (and others) will be there in support, but OSU’s second leading tackler could also be busy with TTUN tight end Colston Loveland for a portion of the afternoon, putting more on the shoulders of Eichenberg. Fortunately, I believe he can handle whatever is thrown his way. Because Tommy E has shown us nothing to the contrary in 2022.
Ohio State has a team full of hungry, capable defenders, so stopping the Wolverines will not be a one-man show. It should be quite the opposite — a true group effort. But if it I had to choose one player to go mano-a-mano with Corum, McCarthy, or otherwise, it would be Eichenberg. The man in the middle has developed into a true star for the Buckeyes, and I look forward to watching him make an impact during The Game. Go Bucks!
Like Josh, I considered going with C.J. Stroud for this one, because I do think at the end of the day a win for Ohio State will have to come on his shoulders. The Buckeyes’ running back room has been decimated by injuries. Who knows if either Miyan Williams or TreVeyon Henderson will play this weekend, and it is putting a lot on the shoulders of a freshman to say that Dallan Hayden needs to be lights out in order for his team to secure a win. So, Ohio State will likely have to win this one through the air quite a bit, and Stroud will need to play better than he has over the last several weeks in order to make that a reality.
However, instead I’m looking to Stroud’s supporting cast. We all know how well Marvin Harrison Jr. has played this season. Officially named among the 12 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award on Monday afternoon, the sophomore has quickly become one of the best wide receivers in all of college football. Harrison Jr. leads the team with over 1,000 yards receiving on the year on a team-high 65 catches while also recording a team-high 11 touchdown receptions. Every time Ohio State has needed a big play, it has been Harrison Jr.’s number that has been called. But the Wolverines know this as well, and so he will likely see a lot of double-coverage thrown his way on Saturday.
This is why I think that Emeka Egbuka needs to have a big game for the Buckeyes against TTUN. Egbuka has been right behind Marv all year long, and sits second on the team in receiving yards (914), receiving touchdowns (8) and receptions (57). In fact, Harrison Jr. an Egbuka have accounted for almost 60% of Stroud’s completed passes this year (122 of 204). Egbuka is crucial to the success of this Ohio State passing attack, and he is the best option to take some of the heat off Harrison Jr. Especially with the status of Jaxon Smith-Njigba still unclear, although it seems increasingly unlikely the star receiver will not make his return this weekend, the Buckeyes needed Egbuka to be the 1B to Marv’s 1A that he looked like earlier in the year.
That being said, Egbuka hit a bit of a lull heading into this past weekend’s game against Maryland. After recording four 100-yard games through Ohio State’s first six contests, Egbuka has failed to eclipse the century mark in any of the last five games. Egbuka also hauled in six touchdown passes during the team’s first six games, but has only two scores since. Sure, there were some much tougher defenses in there among the likes of Iowa and Penn State, and the Northwestern game doesn’t really count since there was no passing game in that weather, but it is still a pretty noticeable drop-off.
Still, things appear to be trending in the right direction. Egbuka found his way back into the end zone against Indiana two weeks ago, and this past weekend he was Ohio State’s leading receiver with six catches for 82 yards (compared to Harrison Jr.’s five catches for 68 yards). He is obviously a supremely talented pass-catcher, and seemingly none of the mid-year slump was much of his own doing. The Buckeyes have been focused on getting the run game going, especially against better defenses, and Harrison Jr. has just been the go-to guy for Stroud when things get tough. But Egbuka is going to be the key to keeping everything on schedule.
Ohio State has had a ton of success going over the middle this season, even though Ryan Day seems averse to doing it a ton, and Egbuka is one of the best healthy options to do just that. He is a sure-handed receiver who has done a great job of running routes and creating space, and he has also looked really good with the ball in his hands and has picked up a bunch of yards after the catch when given the opportunity. TTUN is going to be heavily focused on slowing down Stroud and Harrison Jr. through the air, and so getting Egbuka going in this game will go a long way in spreading out that Wolverines defense.
If Egbuka puts together a 100-yard performance in this one, in addition to everything else Ohio State has going for them on offense, I feel pretty good about the Buckeyes’ chances.