The Buckeyes are just as fundamentally sound on defense as they are physically imposing. OSU plays a one-gap front, allowing its linemen and linebackers to make more plays and collapse the pocket quicker, rather than double-teaming holes and functioning as stop gaps. And the unit, coached by the decorated Mike Vrabel, uses a "viper" position to rotate right end Noah Spence between the D-line and the second level. Spence will often line up in a two-point stance but still come after the quarterback, and the Buckeyes aren't shy about using a linebacker on the other side of the field to creep up to the line of scrimmage. Outside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant are great run defenders, and go for a combined two sacks and 8.5 tackles for losses thus far.
Tough task for Northwestern. But much like the Buckeye front seven, the Wildcat offensive line has exceeded expectations and has emerged as a surprising strength through the first month of the season. With added preparation from the bye week and encouraging momentum from nonconference play, I like the line's chances of at least minimizing the damage done Saturday. My Hype Machine for this week is left tackle Jack Konopka.
Going against the viper, Konopka will have two main priorities in pass blocking: keeping the edge clean against Spence, and teaming up with Geoff Mogus to guard the B gap on the left side. But it's nothing new for the team's most versatile starter up front. Konopka's transitioned to the left tackle spot seamlessly after playing on the right side all of last year. He and Brandon Vitable have been standouts in practice, and PW's Nick Medline said after one especially good outing that Konopka "might even grow into the team's best offensive lineman." Konopka has remained consistent blocking for both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, and as a former superback, he has the speed required for laying down lead blocks on the outside.
Konopka will face the added pressure of opening up the edge for the return of Venric Mark. While I do expect Mark to be a half-step off in his first real action since the Gator Bowl, I think his versatility and home-run speed will make a dent in OSU's front seven as the game wears on. Konopka will be leading the charge, and expect Dan Vitale to be used a bit more as a blocker as well. Even if the ground game is slow to pick up, I'm willing to be the 6-5, 300 pound Konopka is able to hang around for a while and wear down the Buckeyes.
It's hard to quantify the success of a single lineman, but watch Konopka's left side Saturday. So many crucial elements of the gameplan--getting Mark involved sideline to sideline, running the read-option, finding receivers that can stretch the field--depend on Konopka and the rest of the O-line. In a game that's garnering so much attention before kickoff, a little fundamental football makes the opponent look almost manageable. Now get hyped.
Hype Machine Picks:
Week 1: Collin Ellis— 2 interceptions returned for touchdowns
Week 2: Traveon Henry— Eight tackles, interception
Week 3: Rashad Lawrence— Zero receptions
Week 4: Dean Lowry — interception returned for touchdown, sack, forced fumble