Opponent Preview: Ohio State

Fresh off its victory in Bloomington, Ind., Maryland (4-1) returns to College Park, Md., for its Big Ten home opener against Ohio State (3-1) Oct. 4 at noon. The Buckeyes are coming off a 50-28 dismantling of Cincinnati and look to be hitting their stride three weeks after falling to Virginia Tech.

Fresh off its victory in Bloomington, Ind., Maryland (4-1) returns to College Park, Md., for its Big Ten home opener against Ohio State (3-1) Oct. 4 at noon. The Buckeyes are coming off a 50-28 dismantling of Cincinnati and look to be hitting their stride three weeks after falling to Virginia Tech.

Offensive Scheme

Ohio State’s spread attack, which typically features three receivers, one running back and a tight end, is predicated on zone reads, misdirection plays and jet sweeps. But though they’ve been run heavy in past years under head coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes are passing the ball a bit more frequently in 2014, averaging a little more than 26 tosses per game. In fact, OSU has been known to go four wides at times, using receiver screens and quick slants to spring their playmakers into the open field.

Although the Buckeyes are generating yards and points at a dizzying pace (43 points per game; 525 yards per game), the offense hasn’t always been consistent. The is a unit that returned just two starters from last season, so they’re still ironing out a few kinks, while mental mistakes are a given. They haven’t been plagued by penalties, but once in awhile a receiver will run the wrong route, the quarterback will miss a read or the backs will fail to pick up a blitzer. Virginia Tech, for example, confused OSU with a series of different blitzes, and that’s one of the main reasons the Hokies upset the Buckeyes.

Basically, it’s been a process, but, as the results suggest, it looks like OSU is ahead of the learning curve. Their time of possession is solid (32 minutes per game), they’ve turned 71 percent of their red-zone attempts into touchdowns, have converted 46 percent of their third downs and are averaging 6.7 yards per play -- all numbers that rank in the top third of the FBS.

Quarterback

With Braxton Miller out for the season, the Buckeyes have handed the reigns to freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett (Fr., 6-1, 225), who has been serviceable so far. Operating out of the shotgun, he’s completed 70 of 110 passes (64 percent) for 1,087 yards and 13 touchdowns against five interceptions. His 273 yards per game ranks 39th in the FBS. He's coming off of a 26-for-36 performance for 330 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Barrett is no Miller, but his No. 1 skill is his ability to survey the field and find openings. He’s failed to pick up on a few blitzes, hasn’t always gone through his progressions and has made some misreads when defenses have thrown different looks at him (see: five interceptions), but he’s been able to hit open receivers (for the most part) and move the offense. OSU has tried to spread the field and give Barrett a clear hot read -- in effect simplifying things -- and so far it’s worked decently. He’s not especially accurate, but Barrett’s done enough to get the job done, the Virginia Tech game notwithstanding.

Barrett’s a freshman quarterback, so he’s not going to be perfect, but it’s clear he’s a battler. He’s been known to take a sack, pop right up and then deliver a 20-yard stride with the defense in his face. He also can scramble for yards when the play breaks down, evidenced by his 55 attempts for 205 yards this year. Barrett isn’t as athletic or dynamic as Miller, but he’s got some wheels that must be accounted for.

Running Backs

The Buckeyes’ ground game is averaging 241.5 yards per game and 4.9 yards per rush, the former stat ranking 22nd in the FBS, respectively. Though they don’t list a clear No. 1 on the depth chart, Ezekiel Elliott (So., 6-0, 225) is in essence the feature back. A mix of speed and power, Elliott has 55 totes for 323 yards and three touchdowns this year. Elliott, who gets about 15 rushes per game, is not a pile pusher, but he’s slippery and can slice through small holes. He also has enough speed to beat defenders to the edge and motor down the sideline. Last week he had 28 carries for 182 yards and a touchdown, to go along with five receptions for 51 yards.

The No. 2 back is Curtis Samuel (Fr., 5-11, 196), who is OSU’s most explosive runner. He’s not very big, but he can make defenses look silly in the open field with an array of moves. Samuel also has the pure downfield acceleration to run right by the secondary. He’s strong enough to run between the tackles too, and once he gains more experience could very well be an every-down back. Right now he’s getting about eight to 10 touches per game, and has 192 yards on 32 attempts and two scores.

Last but not least, there’s Rod Smith (Sr., 6-3, 231), the short-yardage guy. A big, powerful back, he’s a between-the-tackles runner who can push the pile and pick up that yard or two on third-and-1. Smith typically receives about two to three carries per game. But against Cincinnati Smith carried the ball 11 times for 61 yards and a score, so he is capable of taking on a bigger load if asked.

H-Backs

This is the Percy Harvin spot, the hybrid position saved for OSU’s most potent, diverse and elusive playmakers. Lining up near where a typical slot would, the H-backs are not quite running backs, and not quite receivers. Just call them yard generators; get these guys the ball anyway you can, and then let them go to work.

This year the Buckeyes have a pair of Percy Harvins in Dontre Wilson (So., 5-10, 189) and Jalin Marshall (Fr., 5-11, 205). Wilson, the starter, hasn’t quite hit his stride yet, but he’s a downfield burner and a mismatch against linebackers in space. He excels at taking jet sweeps, getting to the edge and picking up yards down the sideline. For the season he has nine rushes for 59 yards, to go along with 11 catches for 79 yards. Against Cincinnati he had one carry for 21 yards, and six receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown.

Marshall, meanwhile, was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and is basically interchangeable with Wilson. He’s another explosive, make-you miss type with uncanny athleticism. He hasn’t broken out yet, but he is the ideal H-back in OSU’s offense, and once he develops should be a potent weapon. For the season Marshall has six carries for 27 yards, and five catches for 30 yards.

Receivers

For now, there are about four receivers who get the majority of the touches in Ohio State’s offense. Michael Thomas (So., 6-3, 212), who is actually Keyshawn Johnson’s nephew, plays the “X” or “Z” role and currently leads the team with 13 catches for 247 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas uses his size to his advantage (he can go overtop corners), possesses enough speed to take the top off the defense, and is agile enough to slip a tackle too. He is known as a good blocker as well.

The other outside receiver, Devin Smith (Sr., 6-1, 199), is one of the best deep threats in Big Ten. He’s averaging an eye-popping 32 yards per catch, developing a knack for getting behind the secondary and hitting the home run. Smith’s hands and route running haven’t always been consistent, but he’s a big play threat for sure. For the season he has nine catches for 278 yards and four touchdowns. He's coming off of a four-catch, 67-yard, two-touchdown outing against the Bearcats.

The third receiver is Evan Spencer (Sr., 6-2, 210), who is more of a possession type. He hasn’t lived up to expectations during his tenure in Columbus, but he’s a solid blocker and has soft, dependable hands. OSU doesn’t look his way that often, however, as he has just four catches for 55 yards this year.

Corey Smith (Jr., 6-0 ,190), meanwhile, sees a good amount of playing time, and has responded with four catches for 62 yards this year. A former junior college star, Smith may be the most athletically gifted receiver on the team, though he hasn’t been a consistent presence yet. Smith had a big drop against Virginia Tech, but once he gets his confidence going he could be a special target.

Tight EndsO

Ohio State’s tight ends are mainly used as blockers, but both Jeff Heuerman (Sr., 6-5, 255) and backup Nick Vannett (Jr., 6-6, 260) aren’t lacking in the hands department. The former has three receptions for 38 yards this year, while the latter has six catches for 55 yards.

Heuerman actually missed the first few games thanks to offseason foot surgery, but he’s back in the fold now. He’s not on the level of, say, a Jason Witten, but he’s a good athlete who can make it happen over the middle. If the Buckeyes did decide to utilize their tight ends more in the passing attack, Heuerman would seem to be someone who could rack up the yards and make plays down the seam. Against Cincinnati, for example, he hauled in three passes for 38 yards, including a 24-yarder right down the middle.

Vannett may actually be an even better receiver than Heuerman, but he’s not as potent of a blocker. Other than that, Vannett is basically the same type of player Heuerman is, and there’s really no drop-off when he’s in the game. Last week, Vannett had two catches for 25 yards.

Offensive Line

OSU’s offensive line has drawn criticism this year, and it’s the one unit that’s been in relative flux the first few weeks. The Buckeyes have already allowed nine sacks this year, which is un-Buckeye like, while the rushing attack is now picking up a solid 4.9 yards per carry after a strong performance against Cincinnati.

The one mainstay up front is left tackle Taylor Decker (Jr., 6-7, 315). A true rock, he’s equally adept in pass protection and with run blocking. Decker started 14 times on the right side last year, and has made a smooth transition to the blindside in 2014.

Left guard Pat Elflein (So., 6-3, 300), a strong run blocker with passable footwork, has done fairly well too. Elflein has made a few mistakes, surrendering at least one sack, but for the most part he’s done the job.

At center, Jacoby Boren (Jr., 6-1, 295) is the third of three brothers to play at OSU. He’s not the biggest interior lineman out there, however, and he can get overpowered at the point of attack. But Boren hasn’t exactly done anything to cost him his job, and he’s mostly been a steady contributor.

The right guard, Billy Prince (Fr., 6-4, 312), started his career as a defensive lineman but has since shifted to offense. He’s probably the strongest Buckeye on the team, though he has been overwhelmed at times. A freshman, he hasn’t always been consistent with his technique and steps. Prince has a lot of potential, but right now he’s on a learning curve.

Lining up next to Prince is right tackle Darryl Baldwin (Sr., 6-6, 307), another former D-lineman. He’s been a relatively decent pass protector, but not perfect as a couple sacks have come over his side. Baldwin is considered a solid run blocker, however.

Ohio State’s top backup, Chase Farris (Jr., 6-4, 300), is actually one of the more effective offensive linemen on the squad. He’s a guard/tackle hybrid who regularly rotates with both Baldwin and Prince. Farris is coming off knee surgery, but he’s fine now -- and good enough to start for many other FBS teams.

Defensive Scheme

Ohio State, under defensive coordinator Chris Ash, plays a 4-3, but it’s really a press-quarters scheme that operates out of a cover-4. On first and second down, OSU typically sits in its base defense, but on third down and obvious passing situations the Buckeyes drop into nickel and a 3-3-5.

Regardless of scheme, however, here’s the basic concept: The field is divided into quarters with the two safeties looking to come downhill, while the corners press on the outside. The safeties will drop back into deep coverage if they identify receivers racing down the seam, but their primary responsibility is aiding in run defense. The cornerbacks, meanwhile, play bump-and-run. They’re aggressive and physical at the line, instructed to get right in receivers’ faces and challenge them every play. The front seven plays a typical 4-3 gap-control style, with a few unique blitz packages thrown in.

Ohio State was disastrous in pass coverage last year, so they brought in Ash from Arkansas to remake the unit. For a comparison, it’s kind of like Michigan State’s defense, with a hybrid safety/linebacker to aid in coverage. Basically, it’s a scheme designed to limit big plays, and thus far it’s worked well with just one pass surrendered of over 20 yards.

The Buckeyes are only giving up 20 points per game, which is 32nd best in the FBS. They’re allowing just 315.5 yards per game (22nd in the FBS), 153 rushing yards per game (65th in the FBS) and 162.5 passing yards per (13th in the FBS).

Defensive Line

The defensive line, which has helped spur OSU to nine sacks this year, is anchored by pass rushing specialist Joey Bosa (So., 6-5, 278), who has 10 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Bosa is a stud defensive end, who projects as a future first-round draft pick thanks to his initial burst, array of rush moves, quickness and strength. He’s a versatile end with the power to take on bulky interior linemen and the speed to beat tackles to the outside. Bosa’s got all the tools, and has drawn comparisons to Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Now, Bosa does have to make sure his tackling and edge setting stays consistent, but every time he takes the field he’s going to produce at least a couple “wow” plays.

While OSU hasn’t had to worry about Bosa, they’re still looking for a capable rusher at the second end spot. Five-star talent Noah Spence was suspended for a positive drug test, leaving the Buckeyes searching for an effective replacement. Right now, Steve Miller (Sr., 6-3, 255) has been tasked with that job, and he’s been OK, recording seven tackles, but no tackles for loss. Miller’s not really a physical specimen, and he doesn’t possess otherworldly athleticism or power, but he’s been dependable in run defense at least.

Rotating with Miller is Rashad Frazier (Sr., 6-4, 272), a transfer from Purdue who was a former walk-on. He’s actually exceeded expectations and has provided solid minutes for a backup, recording seven tackles, a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery.

Though they haven’t seen much time yet, OSU does have three freshmen defensive ends who could eventually push for time. Tyquan Lewis (Fr., 6-3, 260), who has shown promise, Jayln Holmes (Fr., 6-4, 262), a speedy, athletic playmaker, and Sam Hubbard (Fr., 6-5, 260), a five-star recruit, all are talented rushers. You could see them enter the game on obvious passing situations as OSU searches for that rush specialist to replace Spence.

On the line’s interior, Adolphus Washington (Jr., 6-4, 295) and Michael Bennett (Sr,, 6-2, 290) man the defensive tackle spots. They’re both fairly interchangeable with similar styles, body types and skills. Neither are your stereotypical 315-pound slugs tasked to eat up blockers; this pair is athletic and can bust up the backfield.

Washington, a former five-star recruit, was originally a defensive end but has since moved inside. He’s been a serviceable, above-average performer who does well controlling the gaps and moving the guard/center. Washington’s very good at stuffing the run and locating the back, though he’s been known to collapse the pocket as well. This season he has 12 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack.

Bennett, meanwhile, is known for his nimble feet and nifty moves, allowing him to sneak into the backfield. For a big guy, he’s fairly elusive, easily disengaging and sliding through small gaps. He also has enough power to straight up bull-rush his man. Moreover, Bennett’s a heady player and can recognize offensive tendencies. He’s also a team captain and usually has three or four eye-opening plays each game. For the season, Bennett has seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.

Linebackers

Ohio State is holding foes to just 4.2 yards per carry, and much of that is thanks to three dependable linebackers who wrap well and allow minimal yards after contact.

Hybrid safety/linebacker Darron Lee (Fr., 6-2, 228), a redshirt freshman, was not highly recruited, but he’s developed into one of OSU’s most effective defenders. He’s added 30 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus, and is considered a hard-working, blue-collar type who is simply always around the ball. Lee’s not a superstar, but he gets the job done and is a key cog in the defense. He takes tight closing angles, sees the field well, is a solid tackler and seems to have a good idea what offenses are trying to do. This year he has 22 stops, five tackles for loss, a sack and a fumble recovery.

The middle linebacker, Curtis Grant (Sr., 6-3, 238), struggled when he first came to Columbus, and last year suffered a myriad of injuries that affected his play. Finally, during his last season, he’s come into his own and has been playing well. A downhill guy, Grant’s a good tackler and run defender who actively fills the gaps. He’s not great in pass coverage, and can struggle to get off blocks at times, but he’s not a bad MIKE by any means. He has 23 tackles, a sack and three tackles for loss this season.

The future at middle linebacker, though, is Raekwon McMillan (Fr., 6-2, 240), who should be a stud once he learns the position. He’s still figuring things out, but has already made a few impact plays rotating in. An explosive defender, he can rush the passer and drop back in coverage as well.

On the weak side, Joshua Perry (Jr., 6-4, 252) is huge for a linebacker at 6-4. He’s one of the Buckeyes’ defensive leaders and is playing his best football after three years on campus. Perry is another reliable tackler who disengages well and actively sets the edge. Through four games, he has 32 stops, an interception and three tackles for loss. He had a big game against Cincinnati, recording six tackles and a forced fumble.

Secondary

The Buckeyes set out to stop the pass this year, and though four games that’s what they’ve done. Opponents are averaging just 162.5 passing yards per game, though they have surrendered 10.7 yards per catch. Meanwhile, OSU’s opportunistic secondary has helped the Buckeyes pick off five passes thus far.

At corner, Eli Apple (Fr., 6-1, 190) redshirted last year after going through his share of first-year struggles. But during fall camp he broke up passes left and right and earned the starting job. Apple, who had an interception against Virginia Tech, has not been taken to task yet, and has become a dependable cover corner. He’s tall, has long arms and is physical at the line as well. Apple has 10 tackles, an interception and three breakups/pass defenses so far in 2014.

OSU’s opposite corner, Doran Grant (Sr., 5-11, 193), is in his second year as a starter. He had some issues in 2013, but, like Apple, has been lockdown through four games in 2014. A cerebral corner, he’s adept at reading receivers and timing his breaks. He’s not quite as physical as Apple, but he’s done well shadowing receivers in press. Grant has 12 tackles, four breakups and a sack this year.

The top backup at corner is Gaeron Connelly (Fr., 6-0, 190), who rotates in a fair amount. He’s another fast, in-your-face and potentially opportunistic corner who plays with a similar style to Apple.

Ohio State’s safeties, recall, are in-the-box types who love to bring it in run defense. They can cover deep if called upon, but they do some of their best work aiding the linebackers.

Tyvis Powell (So., 6-3, 208) was OK in a nickel role last year, but has found his niche at safety. An emotional player with swagger, he’s one of the Buckeyes’ best tacklers in space. He does well closing in, taking tight angles and finishing plays. Powell also has enough speed and range to control the middle of the field on passing downs. He has 24 tackles, a pick and one pass defenses/breakups this year.

Fellow safety Vonn Bell (So., 5-11, 200), another downhill thumper, is incredibly athletic with all the talent in the world. The issue is honing that talent and becoming more consistent all-around. He’s a potential big-time playmaker, and he’s been known to shine when the lights are bright (he’s another “swagger” guy), but his practice habits have been criticized. Bell has 25 tackles and a pick this year.

The third safety, Cam Burrows (So., 6-0, 210), is a reliable rotational player who would start for many other teams. Known as a solid tackler, he has eight stops and one pass defense/breakup this year. He had a team-high seven stops against Cincinnati.

Last but not least, there’s nickelback Amani Reeves (Jr., 5-9, 198), who is actually listed as a starter. OSU uses its nickel defense a fair amount, so Reeves sees plenty of snaps each week. He is a tiny, speedy type who is tasked with taking away the opposition’s slot. He’s been OK so far, but can be exploited if left alone against tall, tough receivers. Reeves has seven tackles and a breakup so far in 2014.

Special Teams

Ohio State usually has a reliable kicking game, but this year the Buckeyes have a freshman kicker in Sean Nuernberger (Fr., 6-1, 230). He has strong leg, for sure, but has been up and down so far. He missed two field against Va Tech that ultimately cost OSU the game, and has suffered through the normal true freshman jitters. He should be fine once he masters the mental side of the position, however. For the season Nuernberger is 5-for-7, missing from 27 and 40 yards, while converting from 46, 35, 28, 41 and 42.

OSU’s kickoff specialist, kyle clinton (Sr., 6-1, 220), hasn’t been perfect, either. The Buckeyes like to pin opponents deep by attempting angled kickoffs, but the obvious danger is knocking the ball out of bounds. Clinton has already sent one boot wayward this season, and hasn’t quite been as precise with coffin corner attempts compared to past years.

Punter Cameron Johnston (So., 6-0, 195), though, may be the best booter in the Big Ten. The Australian has shanked a couple punts this year, but last season he was on-point, and he’s still averaging 42 yards per kick in 2014. Jonhston’s had just one touchback, has placed five punts inside the 20-yard line and has sent three kicks 50-yards plus.

The Buckeyes’ main return man, meanwhile, is Dontre Wilson, the speedy receiver. On 11 punt returns thus far he’s averaging 8.9 yards per bring back with a long of 22. On kickoffs, he’s picking up 22.1 ards per with a long of 38. Wilson hasn’t busted out yet, but he’s most definitely a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.

As far as the coverage units are concerned, OSU’s kick return defense ranks in the top third of the FBS, while the punt defense sits in the bottom third. The Buckeyes have not allowed a special teams touchdown, however, and their coverage has been mostly decent.

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