For the first time this season, the Ohio State Buckeyes looked like themselves. A 63-10 home win over Western Kentucky is hardly a barometer for the rest of the season, but it’s encouraging that the Buckeyes finally handled an opponent in expected fashion after a pair of less-than-convincing wins over Indiana and Youngstown State to start the 2023 campaign.
It might be disingenuous (or a matter of being spoiled) to nitpick a 53-point win over a team with a prolific passing attack, but that’s why this column exists. Here are the things that caused my acid reflux to act up on Saturday against Western Kentucky.
While Kyle McCord has been solid on downfield throws and short passes in this young season, his intermediate game has sometimes been iffy. That was evident again on the first drive of the game.
After the Buckeyes picked up a quick first down at the Western Kentucky 33-yard line, TreVeyon Henderson ran for six yards on first down and a throw to Cade Stover went for a loss of one, setting up third down. Julian Fleming got ridiculously wide open on third, but McCord’s pass was absolutely awful, missing badly and putting the opening drive in jeopardy.
Ryan Day opted not to try a long field goal and left his offense on the field. McCord threw high again on 4th-and-5, but Emeka Egbuka went up in traffic and pulled it down to extend the drive. Henderson went 21 yards for the opening touchdown on the next play. McCord’s medium game needs a little more work in terms of consistency.
Ohio State’s offense was set up nicely at the OSU 48-yard line to start its second drive of the game after the Buckeye defense stopped the Hilltoppers on fourth down. Marvin Harrison Jr. caught a 9-yard pass on first down to set up short yardage. However, once again, the Buckeye struggled to convert a short-yardage run.
Although the line could have done a better job, Henderson was too tentative on the run. The speedy back hesitated and tiptoed when he approached the line of scrimmage, waiting for a hole to appear, rather than simply slamming forward with power and getting his first down. As a result, he was tackled short of the line to gain, and Ohio State took an early timeout to set up a run-of-the-mill, third-and-short situation.
Sometimes the hole isn’t there and you’ve got to make your own. That’s the running back’s job. Henderson otherwise had a fine afternoon, rushing for 88 yards and a pair of scores on 13 carries.
Come On, Kyle!
One play after Henderson picked up two yards to extend the second OSU drive, the Buckeyes’ QB1 made a big mistake. In the face of pressure, McCord was loose with the ball and suffered a strip sack, allowing Western Kentucky to jump on the football and take it away. Hosea Wheeler made the hit and McCord had the ball away from his body, losing the handle. Deante McCray fell on the loose pumpkin and the Hilltoppers took over in good field position at their own 41-yard line. Inspired by the turnover, the Western Kentucky offense dove down the field and got points on the ensuing drive.
It’s hard to find many flaws in McCord’s game, aside from the bad miss to Fleming early and the fumble. He otherwise completed 19-of-23 for 318 yards and three touchdowns without tossing an interception.
The ‘T’ in JT Tuimoloau did not exactly stand for “tackling” on the Western Kentucky drive after McCord’s fumble. Down the field in coverage, he failed to wrap up sophomore tight end River Helms and gave up a critical first down to the Hilltoppers.
Here’s where I get to sound old by saying that today’s players don’t tackle properly and it’s an epidemic. In every game I see across the country, there are way too many instances of defenders running into ball carriers as hard as they can but failing to wrap up. Tuimoloau simply lowered his shoulder and expected his opponent to fall down after contact. That might happen sometimes, but it’s not good form and is exactly what your opponent wants you to do.
Had it not been for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on former Buckeye Blue Smith, that drive might have ended in a touchdown instead of a field goal.
Holding: One of Life’s Great Mysteries
The officials were seemingly fine allowing Western Kentucky to commit egregious holds at the point of attack all afternoon. On different occasions, quite evident infractions perpetrated against Tyleik Williams and Tommy Eichenberg helped the Hilltoppers earn important yards, and Western Kentucky’s lone touchdown on the day was assisted by uncalled infractions on the edge as Steele Chambers and Davison Igbinosun were both grabbed to prevent them from stopping the scoring play out on the edge.
Egbuka was given no such leniency on a nice, 29-yard jet sweep by Harrison on the third OSU drive. The receiver absolutely held (probably unnecessarily), and that’s on him, but that infraction was less egregious than the four mentioned above. Whatever level the officials want to use to call (or not) holding is fine with me, but some consistency would be nice. It shouldn’t be arbitrarily applied.
See Ball, Get Ball
Ohio State was poised to stop Western Kentucky’s third drive with a forced fumble by Lathan Ransom deep in OSU territory. However, both Josh Proctor and Denzel Burke whiffed on recovery attempts, allowing the Hilltoppers to cover the ball even further downfield and continue their drive. Burke, in particular, looked to have plenty of time to set himself up for the recovery and still somehow failed to pull it in.
Western Kentucky took advantage of Ohio State’s recovery failures — and the aforementioned pair of holds on the edge — and scored a touchdown to cut the Buckeye lead to 14-10 at the time. The Buckeyes again struggled to come up with a fumble later in the game when Chambers failed to scoop and score at the WKU goal line. Williams was the last man into the ensuing dog pile and somehow made the recovery for the touchdown.
Although they didn’t hurt Ohio State overall on the day, pre-snap infractions by Josh Simmons and Carson Hinzman showed the developing offensive line still has some work to do. Simmons’ false start in the third quarter put the brakes on the first OSU drive of the second half, ultimately forcing a punt. The Buckeyes also punted after Hinzman’s illegal snap, although they picked up a first down after the penalty before having to do so.
False starts happen, even at home, but they will wreck drives against better opposition, and after last week’s penalties along the offensive line, it’s time to clean things up.
Come On, Cade!
That second drive of the third quarter was extended after the Hinzman penalty when McCord found Stover for 28 yards into Western Kentucky territory. It’s honestly glorious to see the tight end rumbling through the opposition’s secondary with the ball. However, Stover made a basic mistake by being too loose with the ball.
Defensive players nearly always try to go for the strip in the middle of a big play when they draw a bead on a receiver downfield, and it’s on the offensive player to brace for that and protect the football. Linebacker Bryson Washington dislodged it from Stover’s possession. Freshman Carnell Tate managed to jump on it to preserve the drive. The Buckeyes punted anyway a few plays later, after a couple of those odd short tight end passes (three yards to Stover and one to Gee Scott, Jr.) that I wish Day would rip out of his playbook and an incomplete downfield shot intended for Tate.
Obviously, there was far more good than bad on Saturday, and Ohio State played its best game of the season so far. The Buckeyes seemed more adept, cohesive, and creative on offense. The secondary held up well against a good passing attack. The front four didn’t rack up big numbers but did collapse the pocket and pressured Austin Reed into throwing earlier than he wanted. The defense produced takeaways. The wide receivers and Henderson had nice games. But the schedule is about to get more difficult.
Next up is a big one, as the Buckeyes travel to South Bend, Indiana to take on Notre Dame on Saturday.