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: When will Ohio State’s defense finally get tested?
As Josh and I detailed in last week’s preview episode of Hangout in the Holy Land heading into the Wisconsin game, we thought the likes of Braelon Allen and Co. would provide a much stiffer test for Ohio State’s defense. The Buckeyes had been excellent through three games at stopping the run, but Allen and that Badgers’ front was a whole different animal. It proved to not really matter all that much, as Ohio State got out to a massive early lead and no amount of running the football was going to get Paul Chryst’s group out of trouble. Jim Knowles’ unit still looked good, but they didn’t have to do a whole lot.
We haven’t really seen Knowles dial up all too many interesting blitzes or coverage schemes so far this season, because he hasn’t had to. Two of Ohio State’s opponents were at a severe talent disadvantage in Arkansas State and Toledo, while the other two were run-heavy offenses that didn’t require any sort of special scheming in Notre Dame and Wisconsin. As such, Ohio State has played a rather boring, vanilla style of defense — and thats a good thing! The Buckeyes currently rank 18th in the country in yards allowed per game (283) and 21st in scoring defense (16 ppg allowed). The opposition may not impress you, but it’s still a far cry from the last few years.
That being said, I still don’t know if we have really learned all that much about this Ohio State defense. It feels like Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are an excellent linebacker tandem. It feels the Buckeyes have about five or six rotatable guys at the safety spots, highlighted by Ronnie Hickman, Josh Proctor and Lathan Ransom. It feels like the defensive line is doing a great job up front, especially when it comes to stopping the run, headed by guys like Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau and Mike Hall. But with the offenses Ohio State has gone up against thus far, can we really say any of that for certain?
The biggest question mark we have about this defense through four weeks is the cornerback spot. The pair of guys who started at the two spots, Denzel Burke and Cam Brown, came into the year with a ton of experience, but both have underperformed and both were out this past week against the Badgers with injuries. Jordan Hancock has yet to play a down for Ohio State this season, so you had JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown out there as your starters against Wisconsin, with little to no depth behind them. The Buckeyes catch a break playing in a conference that isn’t exactly brimming with air-raid offenses, but when will Ohio State play a team this season that can actually test that defense and potentially attack their weaknesses?
For that to happen, I think we will have to wait until Oct. 29, when Ohio State travels to University Park to take on Penn State. Now, this kind of goes against my whole ‘needing to play an offense that throws the ball’ thing, as the Nittany Lions are likely a better run team than they are passing, but I think wide receiver Parker Washington and 18th-year QB Sean Clifford can at least test you a bit more vertically that the other teams on the schedule leading up to that game. I’m certainly not shaking in my boots at the thought of playing against the offenses of Rutgers and Iowa, and I'm not exactly sure Michigan State’s offense will matter all that much if their defense lets up 80 points.
While I'm not a fan of his, Clifford, to his credit, has been much better at taking care of the football this season. He has thrown for 890 yards with eight touchdowns to just one interception in helping lead his team to a 4-0 start, and the aforementioned Washington has been a big part of that as the Nits’ leading receiver with 16 catches for 212 yards. Clifford can do a little bit with his legs as well, as evidenced by his four rushing TDs on the year, and the strong RB tandem of Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen provide balance for the Penn State offense.
Penn State will be coming off a tough matchup against Michigan in the Big House the week prior, so we may feel differently about them by the time that game rolls around, but I still think the matchup against the Nittany Lions will be the first true test for this year’s Ohio State defense. The Buckeyes should be 7-0 heading into that contest and riding high, so they can’t afford to get too big for their britches here. There is a very real chance that Knowles’ unit gets a rude awakening in Week 8 after playing a handful of lesser offenses, and it will be very intriguing to see how they respond if that is in fact the case.
I have to agree with Gene, in regards to our feels or feelings. I am all the way in my feelings, confused as to whether or not this Ohio State defense is any good. Now, I think the Buckeyes are really good on this side of the ball. I think they could be great actually, and that they have the potential to shutdown any of their Big Ten opponents. But part of me also doesn’t know what the hell to think.
Notre Dame was supposed to be scrappy, instead they’re just crappy (thank you, thank you). Arkansas State and Toledo were never expected to compete with OSU, but each team made some big plays. Hell, some real sickos out there were even mentioning DeQuann Finn and Michael Vick in the same breath. And Wisconsin... well the Badgers might just stink, so I came away from Saturday night’s game with no additional clarity. Ohio State’s opponents have done little to inspire confidence, but at least we have Jim Knowles.
The Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator is the real deal. He has brought with him a sense of calm and preparedness that did not exist last season. Players know the gameplan, as well as their assignments. They are coached up consistently throughout the week, and not rotated in and out for seemingly no reason. This certainly feels legitimate, and if I can allow myself to be real optimistic, I would point out that the Buckeyes’ metrics should look even better. Because a few big (busted) plays and garbage-time touchdowns have impacted the bottom line. Regardless, I believe OSU has all the makings of a top-20 defense. But I still need to see it against an offense with a pulse.
When exactly will that happen? Well, refer back to my first paragraph. I have no idea! This season has really thrown me for a loop. I actually liked Gene’s take, so I was tempted to copy-and-paste, and call it a day. No harm, no foul... but likely no paycheck if I did that. And daddy needs money for the horses (but really I just buy scratchers at the gas station).
Ohio State will be tested, it is just a matter of when. It could be on the road against Penn State, but I think it will come sooner than that. And no, I am certainly not referring to Rutgers. I am referring to another road game; the Buckeyes’ first of the season. They travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State in a few weeks, and for a variety of reasons, I think that matchup will be a legitimate test for the OSU defense.
First and foremost, I still believe in the Spartans... Sorry, my integrity would not let me keep that joke in here, I am clearly joking. But I do believe in a handful of their skill players. Quite a bit, actually. Quarterback Payton Thorne is a top-5 QB in the Big Ten when he is taking care of the ball. He has tried to force the issue to begin this season, but he is better than his current TD:INT ratio would have you believe (7:6). Jalen Berger, the former Wisconsin running back, has found new life at MSU, and he is supplemented well by Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard. The RB duo should test Ohio State up front.
On the outside is where I have real concern. Because other than Lorenzo Styles Jr., the Buckeyes have not faced a legitimate wide receiver. Even then, guys have occasionally cooked Denzel Burke and/or Cam Brown. Well guess what. Sparty has a trio of skilled WR, all potentially more dangerous than Notre Dames’ Styles. Jayden Reed, Keon Coleman, and Tre Mosley form one of the best WR groups in the Big Ten, and each has the ability to go off. If OSU does not figure out its CB issue, it could be a major issue against Mel Tucker’s bunch.
Lastly, at Michigan State will be Ohio State’s first road game of the season! After five in The Shoe to open up their season, the Buckeyes will not have the benefit of a home crowd in East Lansing. House of horrors? Not really. But another part of the test either way.
At this point, I see the Buckeyes simply outscoring their opponents until November or whenever the weather gets cold. Then they might have to tweak the gameplan just a little bit. But the defense does need to improve in certain areas. Creating pressure and pass coverage come to mind. If they rest on their laurels and allow themselves to get fat and happy feasting on inferior offenses, they could be in for a rude awakening once they encounter the best the Big Ten has to offer.