A quarter of the way into the 2023 regular season, Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord has passed for 815 yards and six touchdowns while completing 70% of his attempts and generally ‘looking the part’. He has done so while also relinquishing snaps and entire drives to backup Devin Brown, which is why the former’s numbers look somewhat pedestrian compared to his predecessors (Haskins, Fields, Stroud).
Once thought to be part of a ferocious QB battle, McCord has officially taken the reins of the position and acquitted himself rather well in the process. Not bad for a player who some had given up on, just because he sat behind two-time Heisman finalist and a damn fine American, Mr. Coleridge Bernard Stroud.
When it was announced or made public that McCord would be battling Brown for the Buckeyes’ starting QB role, at least a small percentage of OSU fans began to panic. Others labeled McCord a bust and asked: “How the hell has this guy not figured it out in three years!?” But then a funny thing happened. Despite a few poorly thrown balls against IU and certain armchair quarterbacks clamoring for Brown, McCord definitively and decisively won the QB1 race. To the point where some fans wondered why there was ever a competition to begin with.
While McCord has now laid claim to the Ohio State QB throne, he is far from a perfect player or passer. His stats – impressive as they might seem – lag well behind the early-career totals of Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields, and C.J. Stroud, all of whom went on to be Heisman finalists. Haskins set the high-water mark for newbies with five passing touchdowns in his first start, and Fields was a TD-producing machine, racking up nine (total) in his first two games for the Scarlet and Gray. Stroud took a bit longer to develop into a super-duper star, which may or may not be the same road that McCord eventually travels.
But if McCord never becomes a Heisman finalist, graces the cover of Sports Illustrated (online edition?), or even earns All-Big Ten votes; guess what. The Buckeyes can still achieve most or all of their goals for the 2023 season, including a national championship! Is it probable? Eh, we’ll see. But it is certainly and entirely possible.
Because from top to bottom, OSU is arguably more loaded with talent than they have ever been under Ryan Day. And the defense might be back, back! Like Texas. Now, it’s probably a tad early to make hotel reservations for the CFP – given the level of competition Day’s squad has faced – but I am growing more confident with each passing week. Primarily due to the improvement and performance of Jim Knowles’ defense.
Not to gloss over or minimize what McCord and the offense have done thus far, but Knowles’ ‘Silver Bullets’ have been the real story of the (Buckeyes’) 2023 season. At least in my humble opinion. Sure, the pass rush is lacking, but Knowles and others have stated that guys are doing their job(s) up front. And there is some validity to the idea or belief that Ohio State just hasn’t had many opportunities to get after opposing QBs.
But even without consistent help from their Buckeye brethren up front, OSU’s back six or back seven is thriving in Year 2 of the Knowles/Walton/Eliano administration. Which is perhaps the biggest, best, most important storyline coming out of Columbus this month... And that is even taking into account the announcement of a new Guy Fieri restaurant coming to Scioto Downs! Sign me up for ponies, slots, and novelty burgers any day, but I’d much rather see my Buckeyes deploy versatile linebackers and a stingy secondary.
OSU fans sort of knew what to expect from LB’ers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers, but the position group known as B-I-... Eh, ya know what, let’s hold off until after the Notre Dame game. Then we’ll see if Denzel Burke and company earn the last letter of that acronym... Let’s just say that Ohio State’s secondary has been the most impressive unit of the season thus far. They have done a complete 180 from last season, when guys were often confused, out of position, and/or simply not making plays (See: TTUN game).
Now they seem to be playing with more confidence and more physicality. And most importantly, those same DBs are showing off versatility and a greater understanding of what Knowles, Walton, and Eliano are asking them to do. Through three games, OSU is allowing just 6.7 points and 140 yards passing per game.
Both statistics are admittedly skewed by the Buckeyes’ first two opponents, but limiting Western Kentucky to 204 yards through the air is/was legitimately impressive. The Hilltoppers led FBS in passing last season and boast at least one NFL talent in Malachi Corley. Ohio State held the latter largely in check, snatched two interceptions, and allowed WKU to complete just 56% of their pass attempts.
Now, as I alluded to earlier, Sam Hartman and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will pose a great/greater challenge on Saturday night. They will act as a litmus test to gauge or measure where OSU’s defense is really at — versus how dominant the Buckeyes appear to be on paper. But unlike in recent seasons, this Ohio State defense should be brimming with confidence. And I think that makes (or could make) a world of difference. On both sides of the ball.
Let’s start with or circle back to McCord. He may have believed, based on his viewing experience from the sidelines in both 2021 and 2022, that he would need – or even be expected – to shoulder the load for Day’s squad and help put up 40+ points against top-tier opponents just to give OSU a shot. But now, some of the pressure on him should have been alleviated, allowing him to play freely and with more... you guessed it: confidence. As for the defense, well, they should feel great about their performance thus far, while resisting any temptation to become complacent and/or over-confident.
Of course, there are still those rough edges mentioned in the headline... I can’t ‘bury the lede’ or co-lede, right? Ohio State’s most glaring weakness right now is their offensive line. The big Buckeyes up front have been solid in pass pro but (too) often seem lost when blocking for the run. That simply cannot continue. Same goes for the Scarlet and Gray’s current inability to get after opposing QBs. If OSU is unable to get pressure and affect the rhythm or timing of Sam Hartman, Drew Allar, etc., then it likely won’t matter how well their LBs and DBs are playing.
While Ohio State has shown deficiencies in the trenches, Day and his coaches seem confident that those (deficiencies) can be fixed. And I hope that is the case. If not, then much of the onus is on said coaches — who are certainly not without blame. Because playcalling has been questionable at times, the QB battle may or may not have been handled poorly, and don’t get me started on some of the player rotation(s).
Oh, and the return game flat-out stinks. I know prime Ted Ginn ain’t walking through that door anytime soon, but c’mon.
Yet here we are, with a 3-0 football team that is slightly favored going into South Bend. Everything is on the table, Buckeye Nation. And I am only referring to the good stuff. If McCord continues to play well, and both the offensive and defensive lines take a step forward, then this 2023 season has potential to be a special one. So here’s to optimism and positive vibes. As a Cincinnati Bengals fan and a fantasy football loser, it’s really all I’ve got.