Team Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes

A preview of Maryland's next opponent, Ohio State.

It doesn’t get any easier for Maryland (2-3) after losing its conference opener to Michigan last week, 28-0. The Terps will trek up to Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 10 for a noon bout against Ohio State (5-0), which is coming off a 34-27 victory over Indiana.

Despite the perfect record, the defending national champion Buckeyes have faced their share of criticism this year. Realize, though, such critiques comes courtesy of a head coach, fan base and media that pretty much expect (demand) perfection. Whatever shortcomings OSU is suffering from, they’d probably be deemed strengths at most programs.

Truth be told, Urban Meyer’s squad is rolling, and, barring a major letdown, destined for a spot in the college football playoff. Through five weeks, Ohio State is ranked 33rd nationally in total offense and 14th in total defense. The Buckeyes are scoring 34.4 points per game and giving up just 15.2 point per, averages that sit 41st and 14th in the FBS, respectively.

Offense

The Ohio State offense didn’t beat down its first couple opponents as some anticipated, causing some agitation for Meyer. Seeking to be more aggressive, while distributing the ball to their main playmakers on a consistent basis, the Buckeyes’ head coach assumed a more direct role in play-calling, teaming up with offensive coordinator Ed Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck. The result? The offense made progress against Western Michigan before racking up 34 points and 517 yards against Indiana.

If the trend continues, the previous weeks’ numbers can probably be tossed as the Buckeyes could be primed for an offensive “renaissance.” Regardless, OSU is still averaging 213 passing yards per game (78th in the FBS), 240 rushing yards per (16th in the FBS),  and 6.7 yards per play.

But OSU is converting only about 35 percent of third downs (103rd in the FBS), and the Buckeyes are just 75 percent inside the redzone (108th in the FBS) and have turned 6-of-16 attempts into touchdowns. They’ve also turned the ball over 13 times and are racking up about 70 penalty yards per.

In terms of scheme, it’s a fairly similar spread compared to years past (three wides, a tight end, a running back), but with a few nuances. Meyer has attempted to take advantage of OSU’s speed in 2015, hitting the edges with a few bubble screens, jet sweeps and even some Wildcat.

But by getting away from their “power principles,” the Buckeyes seemed to lack the inherent toughness that defined past seasons. Basically, they got a bit too “cute” figuring out how best to use their playmakers.

Recently, though, they’ve reverted to form: Using the downhill running game to set up the pass. Ohio State is at its best when the ground attack forces the defense’s hand, making it susceptible to play-action/downfield throws. 

The Buckeyes remain in the process of establishing a true identity, but it seems to be trending in the right direction.

Quarterbacks

Quarterback play proved to be an unexpected issue for OSU this year. Cardale Jones (Jr., 6-5, 250) was named the starter after leading the Buckeyes to a national title last season, but was inconsistent initially. Playing like a signal caller with three career starts under his belt, Jones ended up forcing throws; suffering mental lapses; and misreading coverages. He’s also missed open receivers, underthrown deep balls and failed to go through his progressions. At the same time, Jones has also shown why he’s considered a future NFL gunslinger, flashing a strong arm; solid precision; and the ability to extend plays and make something from nothing. Add it all together, and Jones has been up and down, mixing the good with the bad.

For the season, Jones has completed 63-of-106 passes (59.4 percent) for 867 yards and five touchdowns against five interceptions. He’s coming off a 18-for-27, 274-yard, one-pick, one-touchdown day against Indiana.

When Jones proved ineffective, Meyer turned to backup J.T. Barrett (So., 6-2, 225), the former No. 1. But Barrett didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, short-arming passes; tossing two picks; and failing to hit open wideouts in the flat. Barrett’s clearly a proven commodity, with his feet an added dimension, but word is he’s been pressing when tossed into the fire.  He’s 23-for-38 (55.3 percent) for 193 yards, two touchdowns and two picks so far.

After five games, Meyer may be inclined to stick with Jones so both quarterbacks aren’t constantly looking over their shoulders. So unless Jones readily regresses, expect him to see all the snaps. (OSU has not, to this point, used any specific sub-packages for Barrett in order to take advantage of his athleticism.)

Running Backs

Ohio State’s offense starts with its rushing attack, which is picking up 6.3 yards per carry. While the roster features several talented runners, the bell cow is Ezekiel Elliott (Jr., 6-0, 225), a Heisman candidate after making a run at the award in 2014. Although Elliott’s numbers aren’t otherworldly this season, that’s more a product of OSU’s blocking than any shortcomings in the elite back’s game.

This year, Elliott has developed a hurdle to go along with his quick-twitch moves, breakaway speed and superior field vision. He’s an exciting homerun hitter, with enough power to grind out the tough yards as well. Moreover, Elliott’s held up well in pass protection, which is another added bonus.

For the season, Elliott has 729 yards on 100 carries and eight scores. He rolled up 274 yards and three scores on 23 attempts last week.

Since Elliott receives the bulk of the carries, the backups aren’t inserted unless the outcome’s already decided. Bri’onte Dunn (Jr., 6-0, 215) serves as a good complement and would be a starter in many programs, but hasn’t seen the field much.

While OSU only uses one or maybe two pure running backs, you can’t discount the H-back: Braxton Miller (Sr., 6-2, 215). The former starting quarterback is a dynamic playmaker who will take direct snaps out of the Wildcat; run jet sweeps around end; and catch passes out of the slot. When Miller has the ball in the open field, his speed; fast fibers; and athleticism allow him to create yards and make defenders look silly.

Miller started his senior campaign with a bang, scoring two touchdowns against Va Tech. But since then he’s failed to bust out as it’s obvious he’s still getting used to the position switch. Barrett’s struggled with ball security at times, while he’s had a couple mental letdowns as well. He’s a prime breakout candidate, though, who figures to improve as the season moves along.

For the season, Miller has 22 carries for 150 yards and a touchdown. He’s also tallied eight receptions for 113 yards and a score. Against IU, Miller totaled 14 yards.

Receivers

After graduating two noted deep threats, Ohio State’s most reliable wideout is now Michael Thomas (Jr., 6-3, 210). Thomas isn’t a burner, but he’s a shore-handed intermediate threat who knows how to find openings in-between zones. He possesses terrific body control, fights for balls in the air, and can make the highlight-reel play.

A legitimate NFL prospect, Thomas has recorded 20 receptions for 292 yards and four scores so far. He had four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown last week.

It would be a disservice to pigeonhole OSU’s second most prolific receiver as a “wideout.” A jack of all trades, Curtis Samuel (So., 5-11, 200) was originally a running back before shifting to slot this year. Even so, he sometimes moves into the backfield, taking the occasional jet sweep to the edge (he had a 40-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan). Samuel has been effective out of the slot too, showing off his acceleration; breakaway speed; and a multitude of open-field moves.

Samuel has 13 receptions for 158 yards and one score, to go along with eight carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. In Week Five, he tallied only four yards.

Yet another slot receiver of note, Jalin Marshall (So., 5-11, 205) reminds of both Samuel and Braxton Miller. He’s another primetimer who makes things happen with the ball in his hands.

Marshall hasn’t secured too many touches yet, but with limited opportunities is averaging 17 yards per reception and scored a touchdown.

The rest of Ohio State’s receivers are a question mark, although Parris Campbell (Fr., 6-1, 205) is a potential breakout candidate. Campbell has been dealing with a knee bruise, precluding him from cracking the two-deep, but could eventually enter the rotation given his size-speed combination (not to mention his blocking ability).

Tight Ends

OSU’s tight ends haven’t ascended like some anticipated, but they have the size and talent to take advantage of mismatches.

Nick Vannett (Sr., 6-6, 260) saw some action last season, but hasn’t taken the next step as a new starter.  Some have surmised he’s been pressing a bit, leading to mental mistakes. (In his defense, OSU hasn’t looked in his direction much, so pass-catching opportunities have been limited.)

Vannett has the hands, wheels and length to become a weapon down the seam, however, while he’s not a poor blocker either. Look for him to become a greater part of the offense later this season.

He has nine receptions for 88 yards in 2015, and is coming off a two-catch, 33-yard effort.

The No. 2, Marcus Baugh (So., 6-5, 255), is coming along, but typical sophomore mistakes have prevented him from getting on the field much. He’s unlikely to see a ton of snaps unless Vannett is injured.

Offensive Line

To hear some in Buckeye Country talk about OSU’s offensive line, you’d think the front five resembled a sieve rather than a brick wall. OK, so Ohio State’s four returning starters haven’t developed into college football’s version of the Hogs, but the Buckeyes’ trenchermen have still been pretty good. Last we checked 6.8 yards per carry and five sacks allowed wasn’t much cause for concern.

OSU goes about six deep on the line, with the starting five seeing the majority of the time. As a unit, they’re very good at pulling and blocking out in space, while they’ve held up reasonably well in pass protection too -- aside from a letdown here and there.

The left tackle, Taylor Decker (Sr., 6-8, 315), projects as a first- or second-round draft pick. A consistent force, Decker has the potential to be dominant both pass and run blocking. His length, deftness and strength make it difficult for opposing edge rushers to penetrate. And for a 6-8 tackle, Decker usually gets off the ball well, plays with solid leverage and can push to the second level. He actively works to open holes for Elliott and Co.

Left guard Billy Price (So., 6-4, 315) impressed as a redshirt freshman, but has been hit or miss since being named the starter. A former high school defensive lineman, Price hasn’t always generated a push up front, while he’s allowed defenders to get into his body. Price has his moments, but is still getting used to the position.

The center, Jacoby Boren (Sr., 6-2, 285), is the third in his family to play for the Buckeyes. He’s been solid throughout his career, but, like Price, can be pushed off the ball once in awhile. For the most part, however, Boren’s held up well and established himself as a dependable starting center.

Right guard Pat Elflein (Jr., 6-3, 300) might be Ohio State’s second best lineman. A potential pro, Elflein is a well-rounded guard with the athleticism to pull and the power to push the pile. He’s considered one of the better interior trenchmen in the entire Big Ten.

Last but not least, the right tackle Chase Farris (Sr., 6-5, 310). A first-year starter as a senior, Farris has been up and down thus far. He’s decent as a run blocker, but hasn’t always provided daylight for Elliott. Farris has also been beaten off the edge a couple times, although he’s typically a solid pass protector.

Also note backup tackle Jamarco Jones (So., 6-5, 310), who has a high ceiling and is forecast for a starting spot next season. He doesn’t get much action now, but could see increased time as the Big Ten schedule moves along. 

Guard Demetrius Knox (Fr., 6-4, 305) is also coming along and should earn a starting gig at some point. A touted recruit out of high school, Knox is beginning to realize his potential.

Defense

While the offense hasn’t always met expectations, the Ohio State defense has remained among the country’s elite. OSU has surrendered a grand total of 76 points, which sits 10th in the nation. They’re allowing 3.0 rushing yards per (39th in the FBS), 150 passing yards per (11th in the FBS) and 3.8 yards per play. They’ve forced 10 turnovers, recorded 15 sacks (17th in the FBS), allowed opponents to convert 33 percent of third downs (46th in the FBS) and surrendered only six redzone touchdowns all season.

Under the watch of defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, the Buckeyes run a fairly standard 4-3, gap-control, press-quarters scheme. They don’t mix it up too much, nor do they employ a variety of blitz packages, because, quite frankly, they don’t have to. Ohio State has enough talented ball-hawks where the Buckeyes can sit in their base, read their keys, maintain their lanes and then fly to the football.

Granted, the weakside linebacker can morph into a multi-dimensional safety/rush linebacker hybrid, which presents a whole lot of problems for offensive coordinators. Plus the Buckeyes like to press up, allowing their safeties to be aggressive in run defense. (In obvious passing situations, the safeties drop back and roam centerfield, taking away the deep ball.)

Also, on 3rd-and-5 or longer, OSU does use a nickel package, removing a down lineman and inserting an extra corner (a 3-3-5). In these scenarios, you might see the Buckeyes put six defenders (three down linemen and three linebackers) on the line of scrimmage, disguising who is going to rush and who’s dropping back in coverage. This too causes all kinds of confusion for opposing offenses, especially those with inexperienced quarterbacks.

Defensive Line

The Buckeyes’ front four is a deep, potent, veteran bunch that’s generated a third of the team’s sacks and has been a major reason why opposing running games are averaging 3.0 yards per carry.

College football fans all know defensive end Joey Bosa (Jr., 6-6, 275), a future top-10 draft pick. While Bosa doesn’t have a gaudy sack total this year, he’s always in the quarterback’s face, consistently busting up the backfield. Bosa’s bull-rush is one of the best (if not the best) in the nation, and he commands double teams because of it. Even so, he routinely pushes tackles and guards backwards, forcing quarterbacks to scramble or running backs to change direction.

Bosa has 19 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and 0.5 sacks through five games. He’s coming off an six-tackle, 2.5 tackle-for-loss, two-breakup effort against Indiana.

The opposite end, Tyquan Lewis (So., 6-4, 260), is only a sophomore, but he’s experienced very few growing pains, immediately making his presence felt. A different type of end than Bosa, Lewis boasts superior athleticism and lateral agility, allowing him to make plays down the line; up the field; and in the flats. He excels at setting the edge and funneling runners to the linebackers, while he has enough raw athleticism to drop back and cover too.

Lewis has recorded 24 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this season. He had seven stops, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack last week.

On the interior, 3-technique Adolphus Washington (Sr., 6-4, 290) is a third-year starter who continues to improve. After a solid 2014 campaign, Washington has performed at an all-conference level thus far in 2015. Possessing surreal athleticism for a player his size, Washington can tackle in space; leap up to disrupt passing lanes; and slice through small gaps. Plus Washington packs quite a punch at the point of attack, using his leverage and power to collapse the pocket. (Note: Washington was the Buckeye who ended Va Tech’s starting quarterback’s season in Week One, while he recorded a pick-six against Western Michigan.)

Washington has 28 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception and one sack this season. He had 10 tackles in the IU bout.

Lining up next to Washington, Tommy Schutt (Sr., 6-3, 290) has been OK during his first year starting. Schutt hasn’t been a liability per se, but he can get pushed around and teams typically run at him as opposed to Washington. That said, Schutt’s shown the ability to knife into the backfield and corral backs in the holes.

Through five games Schutt has 17 stops, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and 0.5 sacks. He had three tackles last week.

Besides the four starters, OSU typically rotates through a quartet of backups, who see about 10 to 15 snaps per game.

Defensive end Sam Hubbard (Fr., 6-5, 265) was a five-star safety but moved to tight end after arriving in Columbus. A year later, he’s a defensive end who has added 40 pounds of muscle. Apparently the multiple transitions haven’t hurt Hubbard’s development. He looks like a future terror up front, flashing plenty of potential during limited action. He has 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks through five games.

Another edge rusher, Jalyn Holmes (So., 6-5, 265), is extremely athletic and plays the run well. He hasn’t seen much time with so many guys in front of him, but Holmes can wreck havoc when he’s on the field. He has eight tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack this year.

At tackle, Michael Hill (So., 6-3, 295) and Donovan Munger (So., 6-4, 300) both see snaps. Hill has taken the next step during his second year in Columbus and figures to be a solid starter in time. Munger, meanwhile, is a space eater who readily eats up multiple blockers.

A third backup interior lineman, Joe Hale (Sr., 6-4, 295), is in the mix as well. Hale was a starter at one point, although he has battled injuries throughout his career. He’s considered a team leader and a locker-room presence, however, whose value is understated.

Linebackers

The Buckeyes’ defensive line may be a strength, but the linebackers are just as good, if not better. This unit has accounted for almost two-thirds of the team’s sacks, while they’ve held their own in space; in the backfield; and in coverage.

The two “traditional” linebackers are MIKE Raekwon McMillan (So., 6-2, 240) and weakside backer Joshua Perry (Sr., 6-4, 254).

The former, a top-50 high school recruit, leads the team in tackles with 54. McMillan is a downhill defender with great instincts, someone who sniffs out the ball and picks the right gaps to attack. He moves well laterally and can make tackles hashmark to hashmark. McMillan has been “seamed up” a few times, while he’s missed a couple tackles this year, but most of the time he’s reliable.

For the season, McMillan has 54 stops, one tackles for loss and a sack. He had 14 tackles last week.

Perry, meanwhile, is a team captain and the rock of Ohio State’s defense. A “face of the program” type, Perry’s been a mainstay in Columbus the last three years. While he doesn’t excel in any one area, he’s not deficient either, performing admirably in run defense and pass coverage. Perry has solid lateral agility, while he possesses the strength and power to hang in the box.

So far, Perry has 45 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He’s coming off an seven-tackle effort against IU.

The strongside linebacker is actually more of a hybrid than a traditional outside backer. Darron Lee (So., 6-2, 235), a former high school quarterback and safety, may be the most exciting OSU defender outside of Joey Bosa. Simply put, he makes things happen. A 20-game starter, Lee has three touchdowns in his career, including two pick-sixes and a fumble-return score.

An instinctive backer with awesome anticipation, Lee’s always around the football. Moreover, he’s a standout athlete who can rush the passer, cover tight ends in space, and fight through traffic. Lee’s one of those physical freaks who has the speed of a corner, the power of a defensive end and the agility of a safety.

He has 23 tackles, five tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception so far, while he racked up eight stops and 1.5 tackles for loss last week.

Ohio State usually sticks with its top three options, but the first backer off the bench is Dante Booker (So., 6-3, 233), Perry’s backup. A former Mr. Football in Ohio, Booker would probably be starting for most programs, but hasn’t had an opportunity to shine yet at OSU. If called upon, however, expect very little dropoff in production.

Defensive Backs

Ohio State has enough talent on the back end to hold its own even without the front seven’s pressure. Coupled with it, though, it’s no surprise OSU boasts one of the most prolific secondaries in the country (seventh in the FBS).

A question mark entering the 2015 campaign, cornerback Gareon Conley (So., 6-0, 195) -- a former Michigan commit who flipped to OSU -- has answered the doubters during his first year starting. He’s progressed to the point where the Buckeyes are comfortable with him pressing and sitting on an island. Conley’s physical at the line, can ride receivers’ hips and is active in the air. Once in awhile he’ll get turned around, but for the most part he’s performed admirably.

Conley’s recorded 13 tackles, three breakups and one interception in five games. He had three stops last week.

The opposite corner, Eli Apple (So., 6-1, 200), is even more adept than Conley. A freshman All-American with an NFL future, Apple took off last year and has only improved during his sophomore season. Apple has the size to match up with larger receivers, the quickness to run with the speed demons and the instincts to anticipate routes. He’s another never-back-down defensive back who can take away his side of the field. Apple did get beaten on two back-shoulder throws this year, but quarterbacks rarely throw in his direction.

Through five weeks he’s recorded 14 tackles, five breakups and an interception, while surrendering just four completions all year. Apple’s coming off of a one-tackle, one-breakup outing against IU.

At safety, Von Bell (Jr., 5-11, 205) is a ball-hawking centerfielder who excels in space. He’s exceptionally fleet of foot and closes well, flashing an abundance of downhill acceleration and lateral burst. Bell has also been known to offer over-the-top help, displaying plenty of range/recovery speed. Moreover, he can track down runners in the open field, a shore wrap-up tackler if not a thumper.

For the season, Bell has 27 tackles, seven breakups and an interception. He had six stops and a breakup last week.

Meanwhile, safety Tyvis Powell (Jr., 6-3, 210), a former nickelback, has made numerous big plays during past bowl games. He’s not a terrific athlete, but Powell’s another Buckeye who somehow always seems to find the ball despite any physical shortcomings. Plus, Powell’s a leader in the secondary and a go-to guy in the locker room, which has endeared him to Meyer and Co.

Powell’s recorded 29 stops, two breakups and a pick so far, and is coming off a six-tackle, one-breakup effort.

Two No. 2s to account for include safety Cam Burrows (Jr., 6-0, 208) and cornerback

Marshon Lattimore (Fr., 6-0, 195). The former is probably good enough to start anywhere else in the country, but at Ohio State he’s been relegated to nickelback duties. Burrows often enters the game on third-and-long situations, asked to guard the offense’s inside receivers/tight ends. To this point, he’s excelled in that role, a key reason why OSU has only allowed an 31.5-percent conversion rate.

The freshman Lattimore has loads of potential and will be a cog down the road. For now, he backs up Conley and will get in for a few snaps each game. Lattimore was burned during the Western Michigan game and will undoubtedly have his share of growing pains, but his talent level is undeniable.

Special Teams

One of the more interesting Buckeyes’ stories has been the emergence of kicker Jack Willoughby (Sr., 6-2, 210). A former soccer player who, on a whim, took up football late during his high school career, Willoughby eventually became a kickoff specialist at Duke. But after four years in Durham, N.C., he transferred to OSU hoping for an opportunity to attempt field goals.

He earned that opportunity in camp, and so far there’s been some complaints (though not enought for him to lose his job). Willoughby has a strong leg with range out to 50-plus yards, and he’s proved to be fairly accurate too. Willoughby has connected on 6-of-8 field goals, with a long of 31 yards and two misses from 43 yards out. He converted two chip shots against IU, but mifired on a 43 yarder.

As for OSU’s punting situation, the Buckeyes are yet another program with an Australian booter. Cameron Johnson (Jr., 5-11, 195) has a ridiculously potent leg, with the potential to knock the ball 60-70 yards. Moreover, he’s one of the best in the conference at pinning teams inside their 20-yard lines.

Johnson is averaging 46.3 yards per kick, and has placed eight of 25 kicks inside opposing redzones.

The punt returner, Jalin Marshall (So., 5-11, 205), is a threat at 13 yards per bringback in 2015. He’s shifty, sees the field well and possesses above-average acceleration, so Marshall can be a home-run hitter if given a lane.

Kick returner Curtis Samuel (So., 5-11, 200), meanwhile, has breakout potential, but hasn’t had a chance to do much yet. Typically calling for a fair catch, Samuel has four returns for a 25-yard average through five games.

It’s also important to note Ohio State’s coverage unit. The Buckeyes have standout gunners on both their kick and punt teams, making it difficult for opposing returners to flip the field.


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