What we learned last week: Ohio State is a lot closer to being ready for Big Ten play than it was in August, and the Buckeyes have taken some major steps since losing to Virginia Tech three weeks ago. They might not taken enough to be win the Big Ten East yet, but there are signs they can.
Sometimes we worry too much about a team being complete. Sometimes that just isn't in the cards. Sometimes if it is, that doesn't happen until very late in the season (See Michigan State). Of course Ohio State showed last season at least competency is required in all phases to win something really big.
There are multiple ways to look at the state of the Ohio State football team. The most tempting is to focus on the most recent game, which also requires us to get something straight up front: Cincinnati is a good team. Certainly better than the average nonconference opponent, although that isn't saying much.
The Bearcat passing game is legitimately great. Not good -- great. Gunner Kiel is only a sophomore, but he has all the tools to be a high NFL draft pick. He also has multiple NFL receivers to throw the ball to. Cincinnati's playbook has every pass in the book, and he can hit all the throws. There's nothing you can concede to him when drawing up a defensive game plan. The two running backs are good enough to keep you honest, and while the offensive line is nothing special, they can account for that in some ways with scheme. It's easier to run the ball if you get people out of the box with your formation, and you can negate a pass rush with quick throws. They do all those things, and they do them well.
Ohio State's new defense is built to handle a fully functioning spread offense, but Saturday night brought two realities to the fore: Really good spread offenses are hard to completely shut down, and new schemes take time to get used to. Perhaps more importantly, so do new techniques.
The Buckeyes are still experiencing some growing pains defensively, both physically and mentally. All three of Cincinnati's long touchdown passes happened with no safety help. Two were technically covered but a Buckeye -- one a safety -- lost a one-on-one matchup. On the other the cornerback got caught looking for a screen (that wasn't his responsibility) and couldn't recover.
Giving up long plays -- especially more than one -- is not acceptable for a team with big goals, but it is also a real possibility that comes from trying to run a scheme that challenges every throw, as is Chris Ash's stated goal. It beats giving up lots of chunk plays, the No. 1 problem the last few years for Ohio State's defense.
There is a reason Cincinnati finished with 422 yards instead of the 603 by Michigan last season or Clemson's 576 -- Ohio State actually played pretty well defensively outside of those three plays. The Buckeyes were at least taking some things away, unlike late last year when there was next to nothing they could count on stopping with any regularity. Even the rushing stats were somewhat inflated, and the run defense got worse as the season progressed.
This is still far from where they want to be, but it is a step that should not be overlooked. For better or for worse, it's also a reminder of just how bad things not only can be but were. The end of last year truly appears to have been rock bottom.
I would also say last year was as much personnel and technique as it was scheme. The personnel is largely different, but technique can still improve. Sometimes you tip your cap to the opposition, too, and Ohio State isn't going to see another passing offense any better this season, at least not in the regular season. Maryland and Michigan State both have good quarterback-wide receiver combos, but Cincinnati's depth is something to behold. So the Buckeyes have to keep getting better, but all is far from lost.
The Bearcats did highlight another need for Ohio State, though, and that is for a second pass rushing end to come to the fore with All-Big Ten performer Noah Spence out of the picture. Kiel could frequently avoid worrying about the pass rush with quick throws, but he had lots of time on those three long plays. Someone needs to bend the corner and just get there, and Joey Bosa is the only guy Ohio State has right now who can do that. This is probably a bigger concern than getting better individual play in the secondary. Getting beat deep once in a while is a fact of life, but God-given ability to get to the quarterback lasts forever.
Offensively, there was a lot to like, but one of the biggest signs of its growth came on the first drive of the second half. Cincinnati shifted to the "bear" front that famously caused OSU fits against Virginia Tech, and the Buckeyes did not react the first time. J.T. Barrett stuck the ball in Ezekiel Elliott's gut and gave it to him, a mistake if it was a true zone read call because the backside linebacker was crashing hard inside and hit Elliott for a 2-yard gain. Two plays later, UC shifted to the bear front again and this time Barrett audibled. This time the front blocked it differently with left guard Billy Price pushing the tackle outside and left tackle Taylor Decker pulling inside to take the middle linebacker. Jacoby Boren neutralized the nose tackle, and Elliott made a nice cut for 14 yards. That was the end of the bear front.
Talent is nice, but knowledge is power, and the Buckeyes are building a bank of the latter every game after spending the past three recruiting seasons building the former.
What we can expect to learn this week: Nothing profound, just what's next in the journey.
Maryland brings another good challenge for the rebuilt defense. The Terrapins have talent at quarterback, wide receiver and running back. Injured starter C.J. Jones and backup Caleb Rowe bring different things to the table, but both can get the ball to playmakers Deon Long, Stefon Diggs and Brandon Ross.
Defensively, the Terps are a bit of an enigma. They were solid last year but gave up nearly 1,300 yards combined in a loss to West Virginia and a win at Syracuse. Then last week they did a pretty good job slowing down what should be a pretty good Indiana offense, particularly the usually dangerous Hoosier passing game.
If history is any guide, they Will Cook up something special for Ohio State -- just one more challenge to answer.
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