The first three games of the 2022 season are now in the record books. Are the Buckeyes about where we expected them to be at this stage? Yes – I’d say that they are. They’re 3-0 (as expected). The No. 3 ranking is about right. Yeah, I know that they dropped down from a preseason No. 2, but the move came about because of the play of the Georgia Bulldogs, rather than the play of the Buckeyes. After all, UGA leaped over Bama too.
C.J. Stroud and the OSU offense are back in true form. And Jim Knowles’ defense is better than the D that the Buckeyes put on the field last year. The one-sided victories over Arkansas State and Toledo have given Ryan Day the luxury of playing a lot of players – including true freshmen. And, so far, we like what we’ve seen of them.
What I want to do here is look back over those three games and gauge where things stand. There’s obviously a great deal that is good about this team, and I’ll point out the strengths – even the obvious ones. And then I’ll identify issues that remain. I use the term “issues” rather than “weaknesses,” because I don’t think that there are any true weaknesses.
The Buckeye offense
As the season began, Buckeye fans talked openly about their team having three legitimate Heisman Trophy hopefuls: C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. After three games (and I know that it’s still early), I would say that the number of hopefuls is down to one – just Stroud. Both JSN and Henderson have seen their playing time cut due to injuries. And even when healthy, they must share snaps with their very talented position groups. As a consequence, they just don’t have the numbers to be among the national leaders in their positions, let alone compete with the top quarterbacks for a quarterback-biased award.
JSN has played only one full game (Toledo for 23 snaps) and only 38 snaps for the season. Four other Buckeye wide receivers have seen more action. He’s caught four passes for 36 yards. Yes, he’s got a lot more football to play, and he’s capable of extraordinary games, but, as far as the Heisman is concerned, he’s starting in a hole.
Same goes for Henderson. He shares time with Miyan Williams (and others) and played only two snaps against Toledo because of an injury. While we hope that he’ll be back very soon, the fact remains that he has 197 rushing yards on 29 carries for the season. His 6.8 yards per carry average is exactly his 2021 season average, but he’ll have to have some really big games down the road in order to churn up national attention.
Against competition like Arkansas State and Toledo, it’s best to be cautious and let your stars mend before putting them back in. In the Heisman race, though, you can’t afford to miss many games.
Strength: the passing game
The OSU offense is sitting right where it was last year: No. 1 in total offense, with an average of 565.3 yards per game — four more yards than last season. The passing offense ranks No. 7 this year (358.3 yards per game), and it finished third a year ago. The rushing offense, however, currently ranks No. 35, with 207 rushing yards per game, while, with 180.3 yards per game, it ranked No. 47 at the end of the 2021 season. The passing offense consists of several components, and I’ll consider them separately.
Strength: C.J. Stroud
I said in my Market Report for the Notre Dame game that Stroud was subpar. Good enough to win, but he looked nervous, making poor decisions and underthrowing passes. He’s quickly found his 2021 form. In fact, he’s improved on it. Despite losing two targets for his passes in a pair of top-10 NFL draftees, he’s increased his completion percentage from 71.9% to 72.9% (62/85) – phenomenal numbers.
His college quarterback rating has likewise improved from 186.6 to 208.6 so far this season. He’s averaging 11.1 yards per passing attempt, a full yard better than his mark last year. So far, Stroud has thrown 11 touchdown passes against no interceptions. He just seems to get better by the game. Of course, it’s a “strength” to have the best quarterback in college football running your offense.
Incidentally, Kyle McCord’s numbers are very similar to Stroud’s in terms of completion percentage (very slightly lower), yards per attempt (a yard more), and QB rating (205.1). Even though McCord has thrown only 11 passes this season, it’s good to have a solid No. 2.
Strength: wide receivers
Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson gone, Julian Fleming missing the first couple of games, and JSN hurt early against the Irish. Not to worry. Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Xavier Johnson, and Jayden Ballard have all stepped up. And the offense doesn’t miss a beat. Harrison Jr. and Egbuka have absurd yards per catch numbers (they can beat defenders long and can run with the ball) and have scored eight passing touchdowns between them. Not bad for three games. Johnson has been a pleasant surprise, and it’s good to see Ballard get going against the Rockets. Fleming also got into the action, scoring two TDs against Toledo.
All in all, this group of receivers doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. Good speed, good hands, good route running. A real pleasure to watch.
Strength: starting offensive line
Even without TreVeyon Henderson for most of the Toledo game, the OSU running game has improved. And much of the credit for that improvement must go to the offensive line. Additionally, the line yielded a sack to the Notre Dame defense and one to Arkansas State. Toledo rushers were held at bay. Two sacks in three games is pretty good. Some early false start and holding penalties were eliminated from the Toledo game. To me, this front-line group of Paris Johnson Jr., Donovan Jackson, Luke Wypler, Matt Jones, and Dewand Jones looks really strong, pass or run.
Issue: offensive line depth
I was worried about the depth of the line from the time of the spring game. As yet, it hasn’t mattered; nobody’s gone down, nobody’s played badly. Four of the five starting linemen have played 176 snaps; Matt Jones has played 173. Similarly, four of the backups have been in on the same number of plays, and Josh Fryar has a few more. The lines are subbed as units. This practice makes me a bit worried in case of an injury. Are they used to playing with different folks next to them? Would there be a drop in quality?
Issue: Henderson’s health
Henderson has to be listed here as an issue until we know what’s wrong with him and when he’ll be back in the lineup, though we’ve been told that it won’t be long. That said, even when he’s playing, he really has broken only one long run, a 41-yarder against Arkansas State. Against weaker competition, should we expect more?
The Buckeye defense
Oh, yeah, the defense has improved. It’s not a top-10 defense yet, but it’s ranked No. 21 in total defense, giving up 278.7 yards a game. Last year, for the season, the Bucks yielded 366.6 yards per game, ranking them No. 52. Granted, the Buckeyes’ D still ranks below teams that they’ll need to beat if they want to win championships: Michigan, Georgia, Alabama, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota.
Strength: the linebackers
Knowles seems to have settled on three backers: Tommy Eichenberg, Cody Simon, and Steele Chambers. All are playing well, and unsurprisingly are among the tackle leaders – as linebackers should be. This position has been a genuine weak spot for several years now. But this year so far, it’s a strength.
Strength: the defensive line
I, for one, expected the line to be a strength. Of course, I expected it last year too and was disappointed. J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Taron Vincent, and Tyleik Williams have all played really well at times. It helps, I’m sure, that they’re able to stay fresh with frequent rotations. The emergence of Mike Hall Jr. and Caden Curry is also exciting.
Issue: pass defense
The Ohio State pass defense has gotten better, but it still gives up about 195 yards a game and ranks only 42nd nationally. There are several “sub-issues” here. The pass rush has generally improved. Knowles is likely to bring blitzes from anywhere, and these rushers have pressured opposing QBs. On the other hand, they finished plays for only eight sacks in the three games. With the talent on that line and against the teams they’ve played, there should be more than eight sacks.
The cornerback play has been sloppy, if not actually bad. I had thought that Denzel Burke and Cam Brown were strong defenders. I worried, though, about who was behind them on the depth chart. Both Burke and Brown have had trouble with coverage – and, what’s worrying, they haven’t played against any big-time wideouts. The issue need correcting quickly.
The safety position is deep, as we saw on Saturday when Josh Proctor and Tanner McCalister sat out. Backups stepped right in. Occasionally, safeties have been out of position, but I expect that issue to sort itself out as they familiarize themselves even more with Knowles’s system, one that relies heavily on the play of the safeties.
The Buckeyes are ready for the Big Ten. Starting with Wisconsin will give the Bucks a true test. The Badgers are big and tough and have talented players. I expect the OSU passing attack to establish an early lead, and for the Buckeyes to win by a couple of touchdowns – at least.