With one day to kickoff, we chatted with Dan Hope of Eleven Warriors to get the lowdown on the Buckeyes. You can check out Eleven Warriors, which has super comprehensive OSU coverage, here.
INU: Ohio State put together a dominant performance against Michigan last weekend, but they struggled with teams like Maryland and Purdue. What went wrong against Maryland and Purdue, and conversely, how did the Buckeyes right the ship for The Game?
Dan Hope: A lot of things went wrong against Maryland and Purdue, but most of the issues – particularly against Maryland – were on the defensive side of the ball, as the Buckeyes gave up several big plays in both of those games and lots of points and yards. The other big problem in Ohio State’s 49-20 loss to Purdue was an inability to finish drives with touchdowns in the red zone, but the Buckeyes have been much better in that regard since, and their offense certainly wasn’t the problem against Maryland, a game in which they scored 52 points on 688 yards.
Against Michigan last weekend, though, the Buckeyes finally put together the complete game that had eluded them all season. Their offense was spectacular, their defense made the plays it needed to make to keep Ohio State ahead on the scoreboard and the Buckeyes executed well on special teams, including a blocked punt returned for a touchdown in the third quarter that really allowed the Buckeyes to start pulling away from the Wolverines. Before Saturday, it seemed like there was always one phase of the game in which Ohio State did not play well each week, but everything came together for the Buckeyes when they needed it most.
INU: Dwayne Haskins looks like one of the best QBs in the country. What makes him so good, and how has his skillset developed this year?
DH: This sounds like hyperbole, but statistically, it isn’t: Dwayne Haskins might be the best passer that Ohio State has ever had. That’s not to say he’s the best quarterback Ohio State has ever had, but he’s completely rewritten Ohio State’s single-season passing record books this year, throwing the ball downfield and completing passes with a unprecedented level of efficiency for a Buckeye signal-caller. He has an excellent arm, a quick release, great accuracy and handles the spotlight well.
Where he’s improved over the course of the year – specifically, in the last two games – is as a runner. He wasn’t much of a threat with his legs for the first 10 games of the season, but in the past two weeks, he’s finally shown ability to take off and gain some yards himself when the situation calls for it. His lack of running was the one thing holding Ohio State’s offense back – because with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, Urban Meyer’s offense was strongly predicated on the dual running threat of a quarterback – but now that he’s shown the ability to make plays as a runner as well as his playmaking ability as a passer, the Buckeyes’ offense has really hit its stride.
INU: Ohio State has a plethora of playmakers on offense. How do you see the Buckeyes attacking NU on Saturday?
DH: Urban Meyer’s offenses have always been at their best (and has been the past couple weeks) when they’ve been able to run the ball effectively to set up the passing game, so I’d expect the Buckeyes to try to get J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber going early and often. Additionally, you should see the Buckeyes mix in a bunch of crossing routes and short passes to try to get their playmakers – particularly wide receivers Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill – in space and give them the opportunity to make big plays. If they can do both of those things effectively, that should open up the deep passing game to give Haskins the opportunity to use his arm and his receivers’ speed to try to beat the Northwestern defense over the top.
INU: Nick Bosa’s departure left a hole in the OSU defensive line. How have the pass rushers responded since he left the team?
DH: Simply put, Ohio State’s pass-rush hasn’t been the same since Bosa’s season came to an end in the third game of the year. He was the best defensive end (and arguably the best player) in college football, so he couldn’t simply be replaced. Dre’Mont Jones is a talented interior pass-rusher, and Chase Young has flashes of brilliance. Ohio State’s other starting defensive end, Jonathon Cooper, is coming off his best game as a Buckeye against Michigan, and Robert Landers can be disruptive from the inside as well. Since the loss of Bosa, however, this hasn’t been the dominant group that it was expected to be coming into the season.
Most of the Buckeyes’ pass-rushing pressure was sparked by blitzes against Michigan, so the Buckeyes won’t simply rely on their front four to generate pressure, but by Ohio State’s standards, the pass-rush has been just average this season.
INU: The defensive backfield has had its share of struggles so far this year. How has the secondary been playing recently?
DH: Ohio State’s biggest personnel issue for the first two months was its play at the safety position, but the Buckeyes have been significantly better at that spot since Brendon White took over as the second starter alongside Jordan Fuller. Shaun Wade has also seen some playing time at that position, and together, that trio of safeties has been solid, with Fuller often serving as the last line of defense but White making more plays in the run game than any Ohio State safety this year. A position that had been a major liability when Isaiah Pryor and Jahsen Wint were starting games has looked much more solid over the last four games.
Ohio State’s cornerback play has been mediocre all season. After rolling through five first-round NFL draft picks at the position in the past five years, the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks simply haven’t played to that level this year. Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah all have the tools to be that level of player, and they haven’t necessarily been bad, but they have been consistent. In particular, they have struggled with picking up pass interference penalties, and Meyer said this week that he was “very disappointed” in the number of those penalties that the Buckeyes have incurred.
INU: Who comes out on top on Saturday?
DH: I’d be surprised if Ohio State doesn’t win Saturday’s game. The Buckeyes are rolling into this game with the most momentum they’ve had on their side all season, and they’re more talented on both sides of the ball.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Northwestern keep this game close. Northwestern’s coaches have had the advantage of being able to start preparing for this game in advance, having already clinched the Big Ten West title while the Buckeyes were preparing for Michigan, and I don’t necessarily expect the Buckeyes to play at the same level this week that they did against the Wolverines.
I also wouldn’t be shocked to see this game be a blowout, though, because there’s a similar feel around Ohio State this week to 2014 – when the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship game – and they might need a similar performance this year to punch their ticket to the playoff.
Ultimately, my prediction is Northwestern keeps the game tight for a half, but Ohio State pulls away to win by 17-24 points in the second half.
Bonus: Assume Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Alabama win on Saturday. Should OSU or Oklahoma get the final CFP spot, and why?
DH: I think there’s a fair argument to be made for both teams. Ohio State’s two best wins over Michigan and Penn State are stronger than any of Oklahoma’s wins this season, and while both teams have been carried by their offenses, Oklahoma has the worse defense. That said, I think the biggest difference that stands out between the two teams is that Oklahoma’s only loss is a three-point loss to Texas – which it has a chance to avenge this Saturday – while Ohio State suffered a 29-point loss to Purdue. Given that, I think Oklahoma gets the fourth and final spot in the CFP if both teams and Alabama win on Saturday.