Nebraska will face off against an Ohio State football squad that finds themselves licking their wounds from a 49-20 upset loss to Purdue two weeks ago. In that game, Purdue exposed a bunch of weaknesses that had started to emerge in Ohio State’s season: the Buckeyes can’t run the ball very well (69th in the nation in rushing), they struggle to convert in the red zone (116th in red zone efficiency, with just 22 touchdowns in 37 trips), they commit way too many penalties (12th in the Big Ten with 66 penalties, averaging 75.9 yards per game, ahead of 13th place Nebraska, averaging 81.8 yards per game), and give up waaaay too many big plays on defense.
The Buckeyes do have sensational quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who’s averaging 350 yards per game passing, which is second nationally (trailing only a Mike Leach quarterback, of course) and completing over 71% of his passes. Haskins’ 3.75 touchdown passes per game average leads the nation, with only five interceptions. Haskins is not a threat to run, rushing for a net 56 yards on the season after subtracting sacks. Backup Tate Martell is, though, rushing for 121 yards in three relief appearances, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He’s also completed 23 of 28 passes for 269 yards.
Neither J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber find themselves on a pace for a 1,000 yard season in 2018, rushing for 521 and 516 yards respectively through eight games. Both backs average fewer yards per carry this season, with Dobbins now averaging just 4.3 and Weber 5.4. That’s down from 7.2 and 6.1 respectively prior to this season.
So why is Ohio State struggling to run the ball in 2018? Two big factors come to mind, starting with the change in quarterback. Haskins simply isn’t the running threat that J.T. Barrett was, and that means defenses just need to worry about defending one running threat instead of two. (A more extreme example is how Nebraska’s ground attack improved by replacing the immobile Tanner Lee with the elusive Adrian Martinez.) Look for Ohio State to try some different things this week, perhaps by utilizing both backs at the same time or bringing in Tate Martell occasionally, as interim head coach Ryan Day did at times when Urban Meyer was sidelined with his woefully inadequate suspension at the start of the season.
Another factor is the absence of two expected starters on the offensive line. Brady Taylor won the starting center job in August, but injuries have forced junior Michael Jordan to slide over from guard. Also out has been guard Branden Bowen, with his third surgery in under a year to repair a broken leg suffered in early October 2017. Both are starting to practice again this week, albeit not at full speed. They might not be ready to play this week (especially with the four game redshirt rule in mind), but they could be back in the final weeks of the season.
Nine different receivers have double-digit catches this season, with Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill leading the way with 52 and 49 catches; both have topped 600 yards receiving so far. When Terry McLaurin catches the ball, look out; eight of his 21 catches have been for touchdowns, and his 19.0 yards per catch average leads the team. He’s a big play just waiting to happen.
Defensively, Ohio State ranks in the middle of the Big Ten in many defensive categories: 7th in scoring defense (22.9 pts. per game), 8th in total defense (390.8 yards per game) and 6th in rush defense (149.6 yards per game). The Buckeyes are one spot ahead of Nebraska in both passing stats, though: 10th in passing yards allowed (241.1 yards per game) and 9th in passing efficiency by opposing teams (126.6). While the Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten in sacks with 26 this season, they are tied for 12th in interceptions with just six. (Nebraska has seven on the season.)
The Buckeye’s defensive line is led by junior defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks and nine total tackles for loss. Sophomore defensive end has 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss as well. But that doesn’t begin to cover the loss of junior defensive end Nick Bosa, who was injured at TCU and elected to leave school and focus his rehab work on the NFL draft; in those three games, Bosa had four sacks and six tackles for loss.
Ohio State’s linebackers have really struggled this season, as defensive coordinator Greg Schiano tried to play their linebackers up on the line to free up their defensive ends to make plays. It’s failed rather miserably, as the linebackers failed to make plays and quarterbacks throttled the secondary. Against Purdue, Schiano backed down from that strategy a bit, but Jeff Brohm still was able to scheme the OSU linebackers out of the way.
In the secondary, safety Jordan Fuller leads the team in tackles with 44, despite missing the season opener against Oregon State; it’s unusual to have a safety leading this category, but that gives you an idea how the linebackers have struggled. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield might be the fastest player in college football; he leads the Buckeyes in interceptions (two) and pass breakups (six) this season.
This week’s game probably depends on the state of mind of Ohio State. We’ve almost completely moved past Zach Smith; now the story is how much longer Urban Meyer’s brain can stay in charge of the Ohio State program. That’s among the fallout from the woodshed Purdue took them behind in their previous game, and it remains to be seen how Ohio State responds. An angry group of Buckeyes could extend their punt-less streak to three games against the Huskers. Continued dysfunction in the Buckeye running game and pass defense, much like what afflicted them at Purdue two weeks ago, could open the door for a Devaneyesque statement road win for the Huskers. Below, you’ll find the preseason look at an Ohio State Buckeye football team.
Prior to Brett McMurphy’s blockbuster reporting of Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith’s marital issues, the Buckeyes looked like a safe bet to win the Big Ten East division, advance to Indy and probably then the College Football Playoff. Now all of that talk is secondary to the ongoing investigation about what head coach Urban Meyer knew, when he knew it and what, if anything, he did about the situation. Until Ohio State’s investigation is completed, Meyer remains suspended and the future of the football program is now cloudy for the second time this decade. Will Meyer coach this team this season, or even ever again?
That uncertainty isn’t apparent looking at the football team’s prospects, at least prior to the scandal breaking just prior to Big Ten media days. Ohio State looks loaded, especially on offense. Yes, there are a few on-the-field questions, but knowing Urban Meyer and his recruiting, you have to assume there are football solutions waiting in the wings.
Start at quarterback. Replacing a four-year starter in J.T. Barrett won’t be easy, but since it’s Ohio State, there’s no end of options. Even considering that Joe Burrow transferred to LSU this summer. The heir apparent is sophomore Dwayne Haskins (6’3” 214 lbs.), the hero of last year’s Michigan game. Trailing 20-14 when Barrett left the game with an injury, Haskins came in to complete six of seven passes for 94 yards and rushed three times for 24 yards to lead the Buckeyes to a 31-20 victory. For the season, Haskins completed 70% of his passes for 565 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, and averaged 3.6 yards per carry on 24 carries. A pro-style quarterback, he proved he could make plays with his legs last season. Redshirt freshman Tate Martell (5’11” 205 lbs.), a former Gatorade national player of the year awardee in high school will back him up.
Most teams would be excited to have a returning all-conference running back; Ohio State has TWO. Sophomore J.K Dobbins (5’10” 208 lbs.) rushed for 1,403 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman last season, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors last season as a true freshman. Dobbins opportunity was the result of a summertime hamstring injury to junior Mike Weber (5’10” 214 lbs.), who was limited to 626 yards and a mere ten touchdowns last season. As a freshman in 2016, Weber earned second team all-Big Ten honors, rushing for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. There might not be a better running back duo in the country this season.
Eight of Ohio State’s top nine receivers back, and that’s huge for transitioning to a new quarterback. Senior H-back Parris Campbell (6’1” 208 lbs.) led the Buckeyes with 584 yards receiving. In Ohio State’s offensive scheme, the H-back is a hybrid running back/receiver that will be similar to the Duck-R position that Scott Frost will be implementing at Nebraska. Campbell averaged 13.2 yards per carry on 10 carries last season. And then you get to the rest of the Buckeye receivers, seven of whom had at least 17 catches in 2017. Junior K.J. Hill (6’0” 198 lbs.) caught 56 passes for 549 yards and three touchdowns, senior Terry McLaurin (6’1” 204 lb) caught 29 passes for 436 yards and six scores while senior Johnnie Dixon (5’11” 195 lbs) only caught 18 passes for 422 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior Binjimen Victor (6’4” 200 lbs.) caught 23 passes for 349 yards and seven touchdowns and junior Austin Mack (6’2” 215 lbs.) caught 24 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns. One word to describe the Ohio State receiver corps? YIKES.
Ohio State does need to replace a couple of NFL draft picks on the offensive line, but do return two other honorees from last season. Junior left guard Michael Jordan (6’7” 310 lbs.) is a two-year starter and was first team all-Big Ten as a sophomore. Senior right tackle Isaiah Prince (6’7” 310 lbs.) also has started the last two seasons and was third team all-Big Ten last season. Senior right guard Demetrius Knox (6’4” 308 lbs.) started the last eight games last season and has played extensively since his freshman season. While this line might not be quite as strong as last season, knowing the Buckeyes’ talent level, you can’t expect much of a dropoff.
Most of the season, Ohio State was solid defensively. Yes, Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield hung 31 on them, and Penn State maximized their opportunities in scoring 38, but otherwise, they were solid. Well, then there was that 55 point ass-kicking back behind the outhouse by the Iowa Hawkeyes. (Seriously?) Even factoring in those front-end-alignment-wrecking bumps in the road, Ohio State still remained in the upper third of the Big Ten in just about every defensive category. Only five starters return on defense, though, led by junior defensive end Nick Bosa (6’4” 263 lbs.) The All-American led the Buckeyes as a sophomore with 8.5 sacks (second in the Big Ten) and 16 total tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Junior defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones (6’3” 290 lbs) is a two year starter who earned third team all-Big Ten honors last season. Sophomore defensive end Chase Young (6’5” 265 lbs.) had six tackles behind the line of scrimmage as a true freshman last season; look for him to put up bigger numbers as a starter this season.
Sophomore middle linebacker Tuf Borland (6’1” 239 lbs.; doesn’t that name sound like a linebacker?) is the only returning starter for the Buckeyes in the linebacking corps. Borland started eight games last season with 58 tackles, 3.5 for a loss. An Achilles injury kept him out of spring practice, but he’s expected to be ready to go this fall. Junior Malik Harrison (6’3” 240 lbs.) started one game last season, but played in all 14 with 36 tackles; he’s expected to start at strongside linebacker. Sophomore Baron Browning (6’4” 238 lbs.) is expected to be the weakside linebacker after a 14 tackle true freshman season.
Junior safety Jordan Fuller (6’2” 207 lbs.) is Ohio State’s leading returning tackler from last season with 70 tackles, earning him third-team all-Big Ten honors. Both Fuller and junior cornerback Damon Arnette (6’0” 195 lbs.) intercepted two passes each last season; Arnette is Ohio State’s third leading returning tackler with 44 last season. Arnette’s eight pass breakups last season trailed only junior Kendall Sheffield (6’0” 193 lbs.), who had nine as reserve.
Up until former wide receivers coach Zach Smith’s marital issues became the lead story on SportsCenter, Ohio State looked like a squad with the cruise control set on Interstate 70 heading for Indianapolis. What few holes on the roster have plenty of blue-chip options to fill them, which would make the Buckeyes the clear favorite to win the Big Ten. However, the uncertainty of when or if Urban Meyer will return as head coach can be nothing but a distraction.