There have been some positive signs (everything that happened vs. Kent State, and the second half of the Navy game) and some negative ones (not being able to get over the hump vs. Virginia Tech), and the Buckeyes have alternately shown talent and youth in equal measures.
So where do the Buckeyes stand three games in? The BSB writing staff of Ryan Ginn, Marcus Hartman, Jeff Svoboda and Blake Williams gives our thoughts in this roundtable format.
1. Are we starting to see an offensive identity develop?
Ginn: Nope. Maybe it’s just because last year’s was so clear (give the ball to Carlos Hyde, let the offensive line do its thing and use that success to set up the passing game), but it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that the Buckeyes have made their own thus far. With that being said, I don’t think Ohio State fans should be worried about that for the time being. With a mostly favorable schedule and well-placed open weeks, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has until the Michigan State game to figure out how to mesh the new pieces (quarterback, offensive line, backfield) to best lead to victory.
Hartman: Not really. I mean we hear them say what they want to do, but I’m not sure they are entirely clear or comfortable with their options at this point. That’s probably because they still have too many possible options and too few proven ones. J.T. Barrett took a nice step forward against Kent State, and I think he is trending upward for the future. I also thought Jalin Marshall getting more involved was a big plus because Dontre Wilson has yet to take the next step toward being a consistent weapon. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a new starting offensive line group, either, but it remains to be seen if Ohio State is going to be a team that has any one thing to hang its hat on or will just get by on what is working from week to week.
Svoboda: I think the Kent State game was the first hints of what the Buckeyes want to be -- an offense with Barrett distributing (have you heard this word enough this fall?) the ball to Ohio State's varied targets on the outside. Meyer is the kind of coach who puts together an offensive plan based on the available talent, but I do wonder how much he and Tom Herman want to stray into being a passing offense (even if some of those passes are just fancified jet sweeps). This has been a power run offense since this staff arrived, and inside zone is their base play. I am also worried about having so many options at running back and wideout -- having a deep rotation can also mean not having someone to hang your hat on when the going gets toughest.
Williams: Yes, slowly. I think what the offense wants to be able to do is what they showed against Kent State. They went five wide at times and let Barrett work through his reads while also mixing in the running game with Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuel. I think that balance is what OSU wants going forward, but the offensive line needs to hold up for that to work. Considering we’ve only seen that happen for one half against Navy and against a completely outmatched Flashes team, it’s not something I’m ready to rely on. They want Barrett to be able to distribute, but whether they can consistently give him time to do so is to be determined.
2. How do the running back carries shake out the rest of the season?
Ginn: In the exact order they did against Kent State, except more top-heavy. I think Elliott gets the first carries all the way through. He’s the best running back on the team, and he can do it all – run, catch and block. I do think Samuel will get more carries as the season progresses (he’s too good not to) but I don’t see him passing Elliott. They’re a good one-two punch, though. As for the others, Rod Smith is the only player I can see vulturing any of the leftover carries. Maybe a few red zone touches in Kent State-type games?
Hartman: I would be that barring injuries it remains similar to how it looked last Saturday before the fourth quarter. Elliott and Samuel probably split 90 percent of the carries with some potential cameos by Rod Smith, although I am intrigued to see if Smith could carve out a niche as a power runner and even an extra blocker when teams load the box against them.
Svoboda: OK, I came up with this question and it's not really a great one, haha. I'm going to agree with everyone and say it's going to look a lot like what we've seen so far, with Elliott as the No. 1 guy, Samuel getting a handful of touches each game and Rod Smith given two or three touches each game based on the situation. I just don't see Warren Ball or Brionte Dunn as in the discussion, and both Wilson and Marshall will be moved into the backfield at times to give a different look, but Elliott and Samuel will be the key guys.
Williams: I expect to see a two-headed monster with Elliott and Samuel. They’ve been the two most impressive backs through three games and Meyer said after the Kent State game that the rotation there has been trimmed to two. Rod Smith may see some time in short yardage situations, but I think he has run out of chances. Elliott will remain the starter and get a few more carries for his versatility. While both he and Samuel seem to be good pass-catchers I think the team trusts Elliott’s blocking and ability to run inside more.
3. Should we be worried about the skill position talent considering the Virginia Tech game?
Ginn: Yes – at least to a certain extent. Depth is the biggest concern to me. Mike Thomas has shown he can produce, as have Elliott and Samuel. But what happens if one of those players goes down? Until other players show they can consistently be productive, that should be something that Buckeye fans at least keep an eye on.
Hartman: Yes, but in a Michigan way rather than a Northwestern way. That means the physical ability is probably there, but consistency is lacking. One isn’t much good without the other unless you’re filling out a preseason magazine. I really do see why Corey Smith and Thomas have been talked about as difference-makers. They bring some things to the table the others don’t. Early returns are good for Thomas, but it’s only three games. Between Wilson and Marshall, Ohio State could have two game-breakers, but so far neither of them is an every-play threat yet.
Svoboda: It's been glass half full, glass half empty so far. As far as the running backs, they haven't been explosive (zero runs of more than 30 yards, which as you may have surmised is tied for last in the nation) but it's not hard to see Elliott's all-around game and Samuel's burst. Out wide, there have been explosive plays (five of at least 50 yards, one off the national lead) but the consistency hasn't been there. So you can really decide how you want to look at this, but there's no doubt the Buckeyes want and need to keep getting better if they're gonna be a Big Ten championship outfit, and the fact that the team couldn't make Virginia Tech pay for its aggressive scheme is concerning.
Williams: No. Talent doesn’t always equate to performance and it didn’t against the Hokies, but the talent is there. Mike Thomas is developing into a No. 1 receiver, Devin Smith is the king of the deep ball and Marshall and Wilson are dangerous weapons. Judging the running backs from that game would be unfair, as they weren’t really used. The skill talent is there, but it’s young. And remember, VT has NFL guys in their secondary. Credit where credit is due.
4. All right, the great Raekwon vs. Curtis debate. Your take?
Ginn: #TeamCurtisGrant. Ok, not fully, but I’m not someone who thinks that Raekwon McMillan should start. Grant is not a complete player, but neither is McMillan. Grant is a solid player who started 12 games last year, who has been through the grind of a Big Ten season. I think there’s some value to having a senior captain out on the field. I will say, though, that I would be fine with the two platooning at the spot. McMillan is too good to not play, and I think both will benefit from a mix of playing and watching the other.
Hartman: I think Jeff nailed it in the press box during the KSU game that this is not an easy decision. McMillan is a better athlete, reacts quicker and seems to have few fundamental flaws despite his age, but Grant has played pretty well, and he is a senior and a captain. I wonder if it will boil down to a matchup thing with Grant playing against power-oriented squads and McMillan going against spread teams because I think Meyer will want to find a role for Grant even if the young guy’s talent and skill demand he plays more.
Svoboda: I was looking at some things Darron Lee said recently and he credited Joshua Perry and Grant for developing his mind-set to the point that he's ready to not just play but make plays as a redshirt freshman. And that got me thinking -- wouldn't Lee want to play beside Grant, who has been inspirational enough to him and the entire defense to the point he's a team captain? This stuff does matter, as I've also talked to enough players and coaches about leadership over the years to know it's pretty much impossible to lead when you're not in the battle. So that's a long-winded way of saying having Grant out there brings value. He's never going to excel against the pass but he can play downhill pretty well, and let's be honest, there's a lot we still don't know about McMillan's strengths and weaknesses, too. McMillan has all the markings of the next stud linebacker, though, at OSU.
Williams: There is no denying Raekwon’s talent and I think getting him work against Kent State was a smart, confidence-building move. But playing middle linebacker takes more than just talent, it takes an understanding of the defense and all of its moving parts. McMillan may have that, but I think it would be wise, especially considering the manageable schedule, to bring him along slowly. Grant is often a liability in coverage but is an asset attacking downhill and there is something to be said about having your captain on the field. McMillan should see time, but the reps should be balanced.
5. How much does the Noah Spence news hurt the defense?
Ginn: More than some might think. He was the best defensive lineman on the team, a surefire first-round draft pick who would have put opposing offensive lines in a terrible spot when having to choose who to double-team or not. Now that’s gone. One thing that amazed me is just how much Joey Bosa, the other defensive end, played against Kent State. Until he came out of the game late in the second quarter, he had played every single series (the only defensive lineman to do so.) They HAVE to find someone who can rotate with Bosa or you’ll see a dropoff at the end of the season when he’s needed most.
Hartman: A lot, at least in the short term. Steve Miller and Tyquan Lewis have been OK as his replacements, but neither of them have shown his knack for getting to the passer. I want to see more of Lewis as well as Jalyn Holmes, who could be difference-makers but haven’t had a lot of chances to impress in games yet.
Svoboda: It hurts if you think of the dream defensive line of Spence and Bosa terrorizing on the edges and Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington using their agility and power to provide a pass rush up the middle (though it bears mentioning the Buckeyes have only used three DL in their nickel defense so far). The D-line will still be very good but the Virginia Tech game showed what it's like when you're missing someone like Spence, who proved last year he can finish off a play when he gets in the vicinity of the quarterback. So yes, it hurts -- that could be one or two critical third downs per game allowed without him in there, and it sure was vs. Virginia Tech.
Williams: It’s easy to say the D-line was such a strength that it isn’t a big deal, but the inability to line up two elite pass rushers in Spence and Joey Bosa allows for guys to be double teamed. That will hurt this team in key situations. Miller and Rashad Frazier are good players, but they aren’t All-Big Ten players. Spence would also allow for more rotation throughout the game, giving Bosa more rest while keeping one elite pass rusher on the field at all times. Adolphus Washington’s ability to rush from inside could alleviate the loss some.
6. It's hard to tell considering the opponents, but what are the early returns on the pass defense?
Ginn: I would venture to say that Ohio State is not the fourth-best passing defense in the country – which is where it currently ranks – but I bet the Buckeyes finish a little higher than 36th, which is where it would be if only the Virginia Tech game counted. I’m a little bullish on the defense because of the better job pressing on third down against Kent State. Regardless of how bad the Flashes were, getting the job done on third down is the difference between a good defense and bad defense. One thing that hurts, though, is the unlikelihood that the pass rush gets Spence back. He would have gotten to VT quarterback Michael Brewer on at least a couple of the plays when his teammates couldn’t seal the deal.
Hartman: Pretty good. They stayed away from giving up the big play against Navy’s play-action and caused coverage sacks in that game and the Kent State game. They needed to be almost perfect against Virginia Tech because of the offense’s struggles and weren’t up to that challenge, but that was not surprising considering it was their first game in that scheme against an opponent with a modern passing game. Like the receivers, the skill seems to be there. It’s just a matter of building experience and gaining consistency.
Svoboda: I'm im-press-ed (pun intended). Obviously the numbers are cooked by the fact OSU has played Navy and Virginia Tech, and there were some miscues vs. Virginia Tech. But that was also the first time ever playing that defense in a game, and considering the fact the Buckeyes are the only team in the nation who haven't allowed a 20-yard pass while playing a high-risk, high-reward scheme is pretty impressive. And it should only get better, too, as the team gets more comfortable and the young secondary improves.
Williams: Tyvis Powell said after the VT loss that when they’re executing the pass defense is dominant. I’m not ready to go that far, but I think when everything is clicking the pass defense could develop into a strength. They have the athletes to play the aggressive press coverage that Chris Ash wants them to, but they didn’t execute for four quarters in their one true test. A new defense and young players have combined to make in-game adjustments difficult, but I think the pass defense is heading in the right direction and by midseason, or perhaps a bit later, it will be a team strength.
7. Did the open week come at the right time?
Ginn: Sure did. Ohio State will wish it had one of its two open weeks later in the season to help heal from the grind, but I think it’s a benefit for this inexperienced group to get as many practice reps as it can while playing as few games as possible. It’s not the same as game reps, but mistakes made in practice also don’t harm your record.
Hartman: I would imagine so. The reps all those young guys got likely allows the coaching staff to feel more comfortable trying out some different combinations in the starting lineup, and now they have a week to play around and reinforce lessons before getting the normal prep time for Cincinnati. Generally you might think it’s bad to give up that momentum they built up against Kent State, but this team is so young it really needs as much time for development as possible, and that is hard to accomplish during a normal game week.
Svoboda: I'd have to say so. Talk about momentum all you want, but does beating Kent State -- perhaps the worst FBS team I've seen in Ohio Stadium outside of the Akron team in 2011 that let those punchless Buckeyes top 40 points -- really give you that much momentum? It was a confidence booster for sure, but a big win against the Golden Flashes was expected. Practice time and reps is what this team needs now, and a week off allows it to gather itself some going into a critical stretch.
Williams: This is a young team that needs reps within their standard offense and defense and the Buckeyes didn’t get enough of those in the fall as they prepared for Navy, so they need an open week. Meyer said he will focus on getting the team as many reps as possible this week, and that should help. I’m not sure there is a right or wrong time for an open week with this team, they just need the work. I guess having it after the decimation of Kent State rather than have two weeks to think about Virginia Tech is probably for the best.
8. Cincinnati and Maryland -- should fans be worried?
Ginn: Not really. Ohio State will have two weeks to prepare for Cincinnati, and Meyer indicated on Wednesday that he is in fact using this week to prepare for the Bearcats. I think both teams will present some passing issues for the Silver Bullets, but I liked what I saw schematically from OSU in that regard against Kent State, regardless of how punchless the Golden Flashes may have been.
Hartman: Yes, definitely. Cincinnati’s level of competition is suspect, of course, but the Bearcats have some bona fide playmakers, a five-star quarterback and an experienced coach. They might not be able to stop anyone as they break in some defensive changes, but Ohio State’s defense still has questions until we see what it can do against a spread passing attack. Maryland is a similar story with the added element of a better runner at quarterback, although I’d have to imagine UC’s Gunner Kiel has a better arm than C.J. Jones. But UC and Maryland also give the Buckeyes chances to pick up two solid wins without getting up to their maximum performance yet, so overall there is a great opportunity to grow while winning.
Svoboda: Yes! These went from two games that you could much more easily put in the W column with Braxton Miller to two that make me nervous simply because both opponents can pass and score. The passing D has been pretty good so far (I mean, I just raved about it) but it hasn't seen two passing attacks like these two yet. These are bona fide challenges when it comes to facing aerial assaults. On top of that, there will be plenty of incentive for each team -- Cincinnati will be playing for in-state bragging rights, while Maryland should be a rowdy atmosphere considering its the Terps' first Big Ten game in College Park. I'll probably pick Ohio State in each, just as I did in the preseason, but I won't be stunned if at least one or both is close because each team can score enough to have a chance.
Williams: Yes. I think that Ohio State is capable of winning both games and should come away with two W’s, but any competent opponent should induce some level of concern in the fan base. The key for the Buckeyes going forward is continuing to develop, and I think they can do that while winning, but it would be naive to not be somewhat concerned. The Bearcats appear to have a good passing attack and will be motivated to show they aren’t the little brother. Maryland’s Stefon Diggs is capable of making any secondary look foolish. Ohio State has more talent than both teams, but their inexperience leaves a thinner margin for error.