Following their 23-3 win over Indiana to open the season, Ohio State took care of Youngstown State 35-7 in its home opener last week. Now the Buckeyes will battle Western Kentucky for the first time. The Saturday afternoon contest between the two schools will be Ohio State’s second meeting with a current Conference USA school. The other C-USA foe the Buckeyes came back in 2009, when they shutout New Mexico State 45-0 in Columbus.
Although Ohio State beat Youngstown State by four touchdowns, it was a performance that didn’t feel complete. Much like the Indiana game, there was some frustrations with the new clock rules, which has limited the possessions for the Buckeyes over the first two games. Both the Hoosiers and Penguins chose to run a methodical offense, bleeding as much clock as possible before having to give the football back to Ohio State.
Saturday’s game will be the Buckeyes’ final contest before they head to South Bend next week for a showdown with Notre Dame. Ohio State’s can’t afford to look past Western Kentucky, since the Hilltoppers possess a much more dynamic offense than the Buckeyes have seen in their first two games. One thing Ryan Day won’t have to worry about is his opponent this week trying to milk as much time off the clock as possible, since Western Kentucky plays with tempo when they have the football.
The Buckeye offense is making strides
It became obvious that Kyle McCord was the best option at quarterback for Ohio State this season after his performance against Youngstown, and Ryan Day confirmed as much on Tuesday, naming McCord the starter for the Buckeyes going forward. Against Youngstown State, McCord was 14-of-20 for 258 yards and three touchdown passes. Devin Brown did see more playing time on Saturday, but his play was a little more inconsistent than what McCord showed.
Following a quiet game from Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka in the season opener, the dynamic duo exploded in the home opener. Harrison opened up the game with a 71-yard touchdown reception, which was the longest catch of his career. Harrison finished with seven receptions, 160 yards, and two touchdown catches. Egbuka added five catches for 94 yards and a score.
With his output on Saturday, Harrison became the 24th Buckeyes receiver to eclipse 1,500 career receiving yards. Egbuka should join his teammate soon, as he is 48 yards away from the 1,500-yard mark Both receivers are nearing 100 career receptions, with Harrison three grabs away from the century mark, while Egbuka is nine catches shy of triple digits.
Even though his workload was limited on Saturday, TreVeyon Henderson was great when he had the football in his hands. The junior carried the football five times for 56 yards, scoring on two of those carries. Henderson is now 78 yards away from reaching 2,000 yards rushing in his Ohio State career. Through two games, Henderson is the team’s leading rusher, totaling 103 yards. While the total feels low, there are three Buckeye running backs with at least 50 yards rushing.
The good and the bad on defense
The area of the Ohio State defense that will be tested the most on Saturday is the secondary. So far this season, Denzel Burke has been the standout of the group. Last week against Youngstown State, Burke nabbed his second career interception, and the team’s first this year. The pick was Ohio State’s first by a cornerback since the 2021 season. Through two games, Burke leads the team with two pass breakups.
Along with Burke, Sonny Styles has been playing at a high level early on in his Buckeye career. Styles has eight tackles so far this year, which ranks fifth on the team. It’s not that Styles is making tackles, it is how he is tackling that is impressing people. Along with being all over the field, Styles has laid the lumber on a number of tackles.
Styles isn’t the only young Buckeye in the secondary who is garnering a lot of attention. With Josh Proctor missing last week’s game due to injury, freshman Malik Hartford started his first game. While Proctor will be back in the starting lineup when healthy, Hartford got a taste of what it was like to be a starter, and it seems like only a matter of time before he is a fixture at safety.
After a quiet first game of the season, Tommy Eichenberg played like what he showed in 2022. Through two games, the linebacker has 10 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. His 10 tackles are second on the team in stops, one behind his parter at linebacker, Steele Chambers. The linebackers are joined by defensive lineman Tyleik Williams in the double-digit tackle club through two contests.
The concerning area of the defense through two games is the defensive line. Some of the subpar play can be attributed to the plodding offensive styles of the opponents they have played, but there is reason to be worried if the group continues to fail to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Ohio State has registered three sacks this year, with two of those coming from the defensive line. Michael Hall Jr. has one sack, while Hero Kanu registered the other late in the game against Indiana.
The bottom line is both sides of the trenches aren’t getting the job done. If Ohio State has any hopes of making it back to the College Football Playoff, they’ll have to generate more push on both sides of the line. While some of the woes of the offensive line can be attributed to having three new starters, there is no excuse for the defensive line, which should be playing better with the talent, experience, and depth that they possess.
A strong start to the season
Western Kentucky enters Saturday’s game with a 2-0 record on the season. The Hilltoppers beat South Florida 41-24 in their season opener, and followed it up with a 52-22 victory over Houston Christian. Tyson Helton is now in his fifth season as the head coach of Western Kentucky, amassing a 34-21 record during that span. Helton has made the most of his first head coaching job, leading the Hilltoppers to nine wins in three of his first four seasons in Bowling Green. Western Kentucky has made bowl games in each of the last four years, winning three of those contests.
Western Kentucky on offense
Powering the Western Kentucky offense is quarterback Austin Reed. Last year Reed led the nation with 4,744 yards passing, while tossing 40 touchdowns. The senior has gotten off to a fabulous start in 2023, racking up 589 yards passing and six scores through the first two games. Last week against Houston Christian, Reed threw five touchdown passes in the win. Reed is currently first among active FBS quarterbacks with an average of 333.4 passing yards per game, and was named the Conference USA preseason Player of the Year.
One thing that could be tough for Ohio State to defend is the number of targets Reed can throw the football to. The Hilltoppers have 13 players that have caught a pass this year, and Reed has thrown touchdown passes to six different targets. The leading receiver for Western Kentucky is Easton Messer, who has caught 11 passes for 134 yards and a score through the first two games. Dalvin Smith is the team’s other receiver that has cracked 100 yards receiving so far this year.
A name in the Western Kentucky receiving corps that will be familiar to Buckeye fans is L’Christian “Blue” Smith, who committed to Ohio State out of high school. Smith didn’t play in any games for the Buckeyes before transferring to Cincinnati, where he appeared in 21 games over four seasons for the Bearcats. Following last season, Smith transferred to Western Kentucky, and has caught eight passes for 88 yards so far this season.
Don’t expect the Hilltoppers to run the football much, but when they do Davion Ervin-Poindexter and Markese Stepp will see the bulk of the carries. Ervin-Poindexter started his college career at Indiana, spending three seasons with the Hoosiers before transferring. Markese Stepp is also a find in the transfer portal for Western Kentucky, playing at Nebraska and USC before becoming a member of the Hilltoppers. Helton and Western Kentucky have been very active in the transfer portal, with 51 of their 114 players being transfers.
Unlike Ohio State, who has had some issues with their offensive line play, the same can’t be said for Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are one of seven teams in the country that haven’t allowed a sack so far this year. The play of the offensive line has given Reed time to scan the field and find the best possible option throwing the football, which has allowed him to accumulate all those big passing numbers.
Sometimes the issue with the Western Kentucky offense is they can score so quickly that it might put a tired defense back out on the field. Even though sometimes the defense may allow some high point totals, they make up for it with their ability to force turnovers and score on their own. Last year the Hilltoppers forced 32 turnovers and scored six defensive touchdowns. The defense has picked up where they left off last season, scoring a defensive touchdown in each of their first two games in 2023.
The defense of the Hilltoppers
Leading the way for the Western Kentucky defense is linebacker JaQues Evans, who was named the Conference USA preseason Defensive Player of the Year after earning All-Conference USA first team honors in 2022. Evans finished last season with 106 tackles in 14 games, with nine sacks, and 14 tackles for loss. The linebacker is filling up the stat sheet already this year, registering 11 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and a defensive touchdown. Much like Aaron Casey in Ohio State’s first game against Indiana, expect to hear Evans’ name called early and often on Saturday.
Even though he plays in the secondary, the Buckeyes will have to keep an eye on Kendrick Simpkins, who is as dangerous creating pressure as he is defending passes. The junior already has 2.5 sacks this season, and has added another stop behind the line of scrimmage. Along with his sack total, Simpkins has also forced a fumble. As a team, Western Kentucky has six sacks in 2023.
There are a number of other Hilltopper defenders to keep an eye on in Saturday’s game. While Evans deservedly gets a lot of publicity, leading Western Kentucky in tackles is linebacker Talique Allen, who has 12 stops so far this year. Defensive back Upton Stout has a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown and two pass breakups through two games, while Anthony Johnson Jr. leads the team with four PBUs. Linebackers Desmyn Baker and Aaron Key are the other Western Kentucky players that have nabbed an interception this season.
With the offensive firepower they possess, facing Western Kentucky can seem daunting. The one area where the Hilltoppers have struggled mightily over the years is against ranked opponents. Since 2007, Western Kentucky is 1-12 when squaring off with a ranked foe, with their only victory being a 67-66 thriller against Marshall, who was ranked 19th at the time, in 2014. The last ranked team the Hilltoppers played was Michigan State in 2021. The Spartans won 48-31 in East Lansing.
Despite Ohio State not looking all that sharp in their first two games of the year, this is the type of game that plays more into their hands. The Buckeyes have had a hard time establishing much of a rhythm with how slow Indiana and Youngstown State have played on offense. With the increased tempo Western Kentucky will play at, it will get the football in Ohio State’s hands more, and the superior depth of the Buckeyes should start to shine more than it did over the first two games.
With how much Western Kentucky throws the football, some cracks in the secondary will likely show at times. The Hilltoppers are going to put up some points since Reed and the offense are too good to keep off the scoreboard. What will be interesting to see is how the Buckeyes respond when there is some adversity. Honestly, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Ohio State to be forced to respond to some tough moments, especially since they’ll be facing a really good Notre Dame team next week.
The Buckeyes should still win this game, but they’ll face more of a fight than they did over their first two games.