After struggling in the first half of their season opener at Indiana and suffering a loss to Oklahoma in the second game, Ohio State is coming off two blowout victories ahead of Saturday’s game at Rutgers. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes offense is starting to fire on all cylinders and will pose a major challenge for the Rutgers defense. The Scarlet Knights have been outscored 163-24 in three meetings since joining the Big Ten. How they fare against Ohio State in this game will help determine how much real progress this team is making this season.
To find out more about the Buckeyes, I was fortunate to speak with Colton Denning from SB Nation’s Ohio State site, Land Grant Holy Land. I actually spoke with Colton before the season about Rutgers football on his podcast here. This time it was my turn to ask him about the current state of Ohio State football four weeks into the season. Here is what Colton had to say about the upcoming visitors coming to Piscataway this weekend.
After a disappointing loss to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes have rolled in their past two non-conference games and seem to be starting to click on all cylinders. What are the current strengths and weaknesses of this team entering week five?
Colton: The two strengths that stand out the most are the running game and the the defensive line. True freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has been a revelation, and it's hard to explain how good he's been without a bit of hyperbole. Dobbins has this sense of how to set up his blocks that you don't usually see in a freshman, and his vision and explosiveness have brought an extra dimension to the offense to go along with a solid offensive line. Dobbins' elusiveness at the second level of the defense sets him apart, and he's already making it a habit of embarrassing defenders in the open field:
The defensive line stands out due to its depth. The front four goes legitimately 10-deep right now, and it allows them to stay fresh, and rotate in players that are better suited for a specific situation. A lot of the talk coming into the season was focused on upperclassmen Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, but so far, the star has been sophomore Nick Bosa. Bosa is playing a lot like his older brother, and already has three sacks to go along with four non-sack tackles for loss. Add in the solid play of tackles Tracy Sprinkle and Dre'Mont Jones, plus the disruptive abilities of Jalyn Holmes, and Ohio State has a legitimate claim to being the best defensive line in the country.
As for their weaknesses, the passing game still stands out over everything. J.T. Barrett has played well the past two weeks, but it'll be interesting to see how they play against a good Rutgers defense with a head coach that knows the the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel. I'd imagine that Chris Ash is going to force Barrett to beat his defense over the top, and it's hard to say that they'll be able to do it consistently until we actually see it.
How big of an impact is the return of running back Mike Weber and how will he and true freshman JK Dobbins be rotated moving forward? How does his return help JT Barrett with the read option as well?
Colton: Getting Weber back is huge, but it's hard to say how the rotation will look. Through no fault of his own, I think Weber's been surpassed by Dobbins, just because he brings the added element of explosiveness that Weber hasn't shown to the same degree. That said, they're two different style of backs, so I'd expect Weber to act as more of a bruiser/short yardage type, but he's too good to not get his fair share of carries.
As far as helping Barrett, I think that goes more for the coaching staff. Weber's return means it's less likely that they'll need to rely on Barrett in short yardage/crunch time as often as they have in the past, which (hopefully) means less predictability for the offense. Barrett's still going to be asked run, but those attempts should be more meaningful, and can be used to keep the defense off balance, instead of being used as base plays, as they have in the past.
The passing game has improved since early in the season. How has the offense evolved under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and who are the biggest threats for Rutgers fans to watch for with Ohio State's receiving core?
Colton: The evolution of the passing game is still a work in progress. Against Indiana, they used lots of crossing routes and mesh concepts to great success, but kind of backed off of that formula against Oklahoma (Spoiler: That wasn't a good decision). The last two weeks, they've gone to a lot more run/pass option concepts, with lots of quick hitters and bubble screens. It's been the most effective use of the receivers in the past two seasons, and I don't expect that to change this week.
The biggest threat is H-Back Parris Campbell. Campbell's averaging almost 18 yards per catch, and already has two receptions of over 60-plus yards this season, both for touchdowns. He's a lot like Janarion Grant in that he's at his best when you get him the ball close to the line of scrimmage, and let him use his speed to generate yardage. Other than him, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, and Austin Mack are names to watch out for, but have yet to truly step up.
Urban Meyer said this week the secondary is making strides in pass defense, which they struggled against in the loss to Oklahoma and even Indiana to some degree. How much of an issue has it been and where have they been most susceptible?
Colton: Ohio State's biggest issue in the secondary right now is youth. Almost all of these guys are first time starters, and it shows. Corners Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield, and Denzel Ward are all talented, but have a penchant for playing too aggressive downfield, leading to penalties. Meyer also mentioned that technique has been a problem, and with how many people @ us on Twitter during games about corners not turning their heads around to play the ball, that isn't a surprise. I'm curious to see how much Rutgers tests them downfield given that their deep passing game hasn't been very good yet.
Overall, how has the defense progressed in coordinator Greg Schiano's second year at the helm?
Colton: The defense is good, but it's a bit of a work in progress. As great as the line has played, the linebackers have been just as much of a mystery. Jerome Baker isn't having the season everyone expected after he broke out as a freshman last year. He and the rest of the linebackers had a really rough day against OU, but have bounced back the past two weeks with strong performances. I just spoke a bit about the secondary's struggles, and this has been the first year in since 2013 where they haven't been loaded with first or second round picks. They're too talented to not turn it around by the end of the season, though. Overall, the defense hasn't been as dominant as people hoped it would be, but I don't think that'll last for long. As the secondary gets more reps, and the linebacker play continues to improve, I expect this to be one of the top five defenses in the country by the end of the year.
How has special teams play been this season so far and who are key names to know?
Colton: Special teams have been pretty good so far, and are paced by the kick return unit and punter Drue Chrisman. Parris Campbell's averaging over 45 yards per kick return on his five opportunities this season, and it seems inevitable that he's going to score Ohio State's first kick return touchdown in 7 seasons (!) at some point. Chrisman has done a more than admirable job filling in for former All-American Cam Johnston, as 10 of his 14 punts have been downed inside the 20.
Ohio State's kick coverage group has been a bit sketchy, and if Janarion Grant plays, I wouldn't be surprised if he had a couple of big returns. (Side note: I can't tell y'all how happy I am to see Grant playing and (relatively) healthy this season. That dude deserves nothing but good things).
Are there any significant injury issues for Ohio State heading into this game?
Colton: Backup defensive tackle Malik Barrow tore his ACL against UNLV and is out for the year, but other than that, Ohio State is pretty healthy. Like you alluded to earlier, Weber is back, but we'll have to see how his hamstring looks, and just how many carries the staff is willing to give him in a game that they probably don't need to risk his health in. Linebacker Chris Worley sat out last week, and he's listed as probable, but the Buckeyes should be just fine if redshirt freshman Tuf Borland ends up taking his place again this week.
What is your prediction for the game?
Colton: Score-wise, I think it'll probably be similar to what we've seen in the last three games between these two. I think Rutgers' defense is good enough to cause some Ohio State's passing game some problems early on, but I'm not sure they can do enough offensively to make anything of it. I'm interested to see how Ohio State's running game looks against a solid run defense, and that matchup will probably determine how early this one gets out of hand. Ultimately I think the score is something along the lines of 40-10, Ohio State.