The third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes will roll onto the long grass of Ryan Field at 6-0 (3-0 in Big Ten play) with all of the confidence in the world, as they prepare to take on a currently hapless Wildcat team in a much-discussed Friday night matchup.
Spirits are (understandably) quite high in Columbus as we build to this 2018 Big Ten Championship rematch, so we talked with Matt Tamanini of fellow SBNation blog Land-Grant Holy Land to preview the game from the other side and to get a sense of Buckeye nation as a whole.
INU; Is this offense somehow better right now under Justin Fields than it was last year with Dwayne Haskins? Generally, what has changed?
LGHL: I don’t know if I would say that it is better or worse, but it certainly is different. The numbers that Haskins put up last year were insane; they had never been seen before in the history of the Big Ten Conference. But, Ohio State’s running game was abysmal, and while some of that had to do with the fact that Haskins was never a run threat and defenses could sell out at stopping Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, it also had to do with the offensive line and offensive philosophy.
This year, the offense is back to what would have been more of a traditional Urban Meyer approach as the running game — including Fields — is much more at the center of the offensive attack. The offensive line has almost wholly been rebuilt since last year and Dobbins is not only returning to his 2017 form, but far exceeding it. So while Fields will never be able to put up the numbers that Haskins did, he is a smart, precise passer, and the offense has a legitimate balance that it was lacking in 2018.
The other major factor is how the running game has improved their production in the red zone. Last season, the Buckeyes were 13th in the Big Ten in red zone conversion percentage (77.14%). This season they’re seventh, having scored on 26 of 30 trips inside the 20 (86.67%), including 24 touchdowns.
INU: What has allowed the defense to seemingly take such a big leap forward so far this season under an offensive-minded head coach?
LGHL: I think that there are two pretty simple answers to this question. First is that the vast majority of the defense is back from last year. They lost Nick Bosa, Dre’Mont Jones, and Kendall Sheffield, but otherwise that side of the ball is almost completely intact, so most of the defense comes in with a wealth of knowledge and experience.
Secondly is the defensive coaching staff that Day put together and the directives that he gave them. Larry Johnson — who is arguably the best defensive line coach in the country — is the only holdover from last year. Day tasked the defensive coaches with simplifying the schemes and figuring out a way to allow the athletes on that side of the ball to play free, and then the first-yer head coach got out of the way.
One of the major issues with OSU’s defense last season was that they were pretty young and being asked to digest complicated gameplans that didn’t actually take into account their actual skillsets. This season, the defensive approach takes advantage of what is a uniquely athletic group, and puts them in position to make plays; rather than forcing the players to immediately diagnose every offensive wrinkle in order to put themselves in position to make plays.
INU: Who are some newcomers (not necessarily freshmen, but can be if applicable) or players with significantly increased roles to watch in any of the three phases?
LGHL: The young contributors are primarily on offense this season. Redshirt freshman running Master Teague III has quickly worked his way into being Dobbins’ backup, and has done a tremendous job in that role. He is an incredibly fast straight-ahead runner, and has become more integral to the gameplay, both in spelling Dobbins and in providing a change of pace.
There are also two wide receivers who have shown flashes of what the future holds at the position for the Buckeyes; sophomore Chris Olave and freshman Garrett Wilson. While neither is probably the best WR on the team right now, they could be the two most talented. There aren’t enough targets to go around right now with K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor still at the top of the depth chart, but both Olave and Wilson have the ability to make huge, ridiculous plays at any time.
INU: What, if anything, are this team’s biggest weaknesses?
LGHL: The one issue that I think that Ohio State still hasn’t fully had to come to grips with from last season’s defensive debacle is the play of the linebackers. Last season, they were often schemed into poor positions, forced to make practically inhuman reads, and weren’t nearly athletic enough to compensate. This year, the LBs are playing significantly better, both because of the defensive system and because of a better rotation, with Malik Harrison starting and Baron Browning getting a slight majority of the snaps in the middle.
But, the remnants of the 2018 issues still pop their heads up on occasion, but since the Buckeyes haven’t yet faced the most challenging games on their schedule, these problems have gone mostly unnoticed thus far. There are times — especially when Tuf Borland is at middle linebacker — that tight ends and receivers can find very soft spots in the middle of zones, which can turn into big gains; not as big as they did last season, but bigger than they should be.
Also, depending on the offense’s motion, they can get SAM linebacker Pete Werner to actually drop back and play safety. For a while, many Buckeye fans and media thought that this was a flaw in new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s system, but as we’ve come to learn, they are completely comfortable with this scenario. Despite talk of Mattison introducing a “Bullet” hybrid linebacker/safety position to the Buckeye defense (the equivalent of the “Viper” which he ran while at Michigan), Werner has mostly taken on those responsibilities as well.
So, despite how comfortable the defense’s coaches are, I can’t help but think that when OSU plays teams with elite-level receivers, that they will be able to blow by the 6-foot-3, 239-pound linebacker trying to be the last line of defense.
INU: How fair do you think the narrative of the once-per-year Ohio State meltdown is, and will it happen this season?
LGHL: I think that it was obviously true over the last two years, but I think that it was emblematic of some of the inherent issues with the later teams of the Meyer era. Urban had an incredible ability to get his teams up for big games; he might have been the best in in recent memory in that regard. However, it was nearly impossible to keep that level of motivation up for an entire season, unless you had a truly remarkable team. Even the 2014 national championship team lost to a Virginia Tech team that ended up going 7-6 on the season.
Day, however, has a different personality, and therefore, a different approach to coaching. While he has proven that he can get his team motivated, Day is far more focused on the process than the hype and psychology of manipulating his players into a frenzy. While this philosophy might not yield the insanely high-end results that Meyer was able to coax out of his players at time, I do think that it will raise the floor and prevent them from bottoming out on occasion.
INU: Does Northwestern have any chance, as four touchdown dogs, of pulling the crazy upset? Ultimately, what is your game prediction?
LGHL: In all honesty? I don’t think so. These two teams played in the Big Ten Title Game last year, and OSU won 45-24, and since then, I think that the Buckeyes have only gotten better, while — because of the offensive struggles — Northwestern has only gotten worse.
So, I will take Ohio State plus the points, 49-10.