Ohio State Second Thoughts: Cincinnati

Lessons from a review of Ohio State's 50-28 win over Cincinnati include: Everyone on Ohio State's offensive line is coming along, J.T. Barrett "gets by" a little more than it seems, the Bearcats don't mind getting run on and both teams need more work in their new defensive schemes.

Of course the item from the teaser that is likely to get the most attention is about the quarterback. And admittedly it comes after a spirited message board debate about how good he is compared to the man he is replacing, so we might have been looking a little more closely for imperfections. That said, we need to get one thing straight: J.T. Barrett is a good young quarterback, and he is likely to get better and better. He is probably advanced for his experience level, but his reputation as a game manager and a distributor seems to lead people to read a little more efficiency into his performance than is truly there.

Barrett throws a nice ball, but like many college quarterbacks he still makes his receivers work for it at times by missing his spot. He has at times thrown guys open, but he has also thrown them covered at least a time or two in every game. And believe it or not, he once in a while doesn't see the open man and instead goes somewhere else with the ball or scrambles (this is an example that comes from watching via the press box as TV often hides some of the routes). Like his predecessor, he has his things he does well and things he is working on. Barrett also benefits from more explosive performers around him that have finally started to come of age.

The reason for pointing all that out is not to bash the young man but simply to try to avoid expectations getting too high for him too early, especially with the new baby shovel passes that have replaced jet sweep handoffs and pad the passing stats. There are bound to be bumps in the road, particularly when the competition gets greater (which isn't going to take much after the last two defenses Ohio State has faced), and my experience has been that fans react more negatively the higher their expectations were. And as a matter of full disclosure, I myself was surprised at how many times his receivers helped him out on throws that weren't in the best catching window they could have been.

That said, the weapons we heard about all offseason are certainly there, and he usually makes sure they get a good chance to do their thing. This should be an ongoing competition with different players earning more reps than others. I would not be surprised to see playing time fluctuate from week to week as different players step to the fore.

Ezekiel Elliott is probably going to be safe as the No. 1 running back, though. He seemed to run more under control against UC. He was more patient, and that opened up some better running lanes for him. He also ran through a lot of contact. Rod Smith was also impressive as he knows what to do with his power and quickness, and that is get headed up field as quickly as possible.

They both had lots of running room thanks to an exemplary performance by the offensive line. Everyone in the starting lineup and Chase Farris and Joel Hale had at least one notable blowout block, and the blown blocks were few and far between. Their job was made easier, though, by Cincinnati's contentment with trying to stop the run with only its front four and two linebackers. Their defensive scheme frees the safeties to get involved, but they weren't very quick to do so. The Bearcats have some good athletes up front, but the Buckeyes whipped them pretty good across the board, and I don't think they got enough help from the guys behind them.

We also learned that Ohio State's possible power deficiency I wrote about after the Virginia Tech game is being fixed. Health is a major factor here as Jeff Heuerman's return gives them two tight ends they can rely on, and they took advantage with a good number of two-tight end, one-back ("12 personnel") sets that were very productive. They showed a couple of different formations with this grouping, and they had success with a variety of different types of running plays. This could be a very useful package moving forward, especially if a team insists on loading the box and the Buckeyes can't throw them out of it, a la Virginia Tech.

Defensively, the guy who jumps off the screen is Raekwon McMillan. That youngster can really play. He seems to recognize things quickly, and he gets to the ball fast. He's a good hitter but plays under control, and he can separate from blocks. The sky is the limit for him.

Fellow linebacker Darron Lee is also a Steady Eddie. He had his hands full with the Bearcats' slot receivers, but he held his own for the most part.

Overall, the defense is coming along. I thought communication issues would be a potential problem early on, but that hasn't really been the case so far. No one passed off a receiver to the wrong guy on those big plays -- they were individual mistakes or simple losses one on one. Whether or not missed assignments or physical losses should be more concerning is a matter of debate. If you believe young guys like Eli Apple and Vonn Bell are going to get better as they refine their technique, you'd probably prefer an "MA" because that can be corrected more easily. Doran Grant had a handful of other nice plays and in general held up against No. 1 receiver MeKale McKay as the boundary corner, so his big mistake in letting Chris Moore run free on the last big play can probably be written off as something that won't happen again.

Right after the game, Urban Meyer wondered aloud (with some prompting) if Ohio State had the right players on the field (or in the program) to play that style, but I think the answer is probably yes. Time will tell. I know that in the all-too-recent past, we saw enough repeated blown assignments that we can't just dismiss them out of hand until they actually go away.

Overall, I would say the unit plays pretty fast and physical. Communication is good. It's just a matter of refining what they do.

I still think they need a better natural pass rusher to put at the other end opposite Joey Bosa, but the second look at the game on film revealed Steve Miller played a strong all-around game. He tracked down a receiver when dropping into coverage, and he set the edge most of the time there was a run in his direction.

On to the other points and observations:

  • Thought live and the replay confirmed: Gunner Kiel's third-down throw on the opening series to his slot receiver was fantastic. Darron Lee was in good position and Kiel somehow got it past him. Kiel had a lot of time on that play and too much time on the TD pass on the same drive.
  • The first time OSU ran the wildcat with Jalin Marshall was an extremely well executed play. Darryl Baldwin picked up a linebacker downfield, Rod Smith cracked a guy as the lead blocker, Marshall made a man miss and Billy Price neutralized the edge man pulling from the backside.
  • The defense looked kind of flat against the wildcat from Cincinnati. Luke Fickell said they had a plan for it, and that seemed to involved blitzing the middle linebacker automatically, but Curtis Grant wasn't able to corral the QB on the first play, and that resulted in a big gain. Overall then UC was just getting guys blocked, which wasn't true for much of the night. After Ohio State called a timeout, they stuffed a zone run and there were a lot fewer guys getting blocked. Bennett, Washington and Steve Miller stuffed their men and McMillan (who wasn't in previously) cleaned it up. On Cincinnati's wildcat TD pass that was called back, it appeared Gareon Conley was the man who abandoned the receiver who eventually scored the touchdown. Lee did a nice job of forcing Evans to cut outside. The backside tackle was certainly downfield, although it had no effect on the play.
  • Armani Reeves hasn't gotten a lot of time because they've played mostly base, but he's done a pretty good job as the nickel back providing more coverage.
  • The second UC touchdown was a very well executed tunnel screen that included a great block on McMillan, but it probably wouldn't have gone all the way into the end zone if one of the safeties steps up and takes on a blocker down the field.
  • On the 83-yard touchdown pass the UC coaching staff deserves credit for a good call. They occupied the safety with a dig route and left the cornerback in one-on-one coverage and he was beaten (if no pass routes threaten the safety, he can help on the outside receiver). Meyer said later he would have liked to see a coverage that involved a deep safety in this situation, and it's not hard to see why. The slot was matched up with Lee, who seemed to be in good shape, but the safety was playing his assignment. And if Lee gives up a catch there, you don't really mind with less than a minute left and about 70 yards to the end zone.
  • UC shifted to the bear front on the second play of the second half, and that worked to stop the power play (or "Dave" as Jim Tressel called it) by sending the backside linebacker, who wasn't blocked and wasn't read, crashing inside. It was blocked up on the front side, and you can see Boren making an adjustment after they shift. This isn't much different than when we used to see Ohio State continue to run "Dave" under Tressel with no backside running threat to slow down the end. When UC showed it again two plays later, OSU changed both who was being optioned and who was pulling. Barrett read the end man this time and gave it to Elliott, who followed a nice block by Taylor Decker. Decker, the tackle pulled instead of the guard, used his pre-snap leverage to turn out the defensive tackle. Boren also did a solid job neutralizing the nose guard.

    Looks like they changed the aiming point of the play to make it easier for him to cut back, too, because Elliott probably saw daylight to the front side, but the MLB was going to be able to scrape over and have a good shot at him. When he cut back, the MLB found himself trapped by Decker. Later UC went to the bear again and Ohio State's adjustment worked to the right though not as well because as Baldwin whiffed on UC MLB Jeff Luc.

  • Later in the same drive Ohio State pulled out the "wham" play, which is like a trap with the tight end blocking down on the backside end while the tackle picks up the linebacker down the field. Rod Smith gave a peak at the power and quickness he has on that run as well.
  • I thought on the first drive of the second half, Barrett could have had a completion if he had gone to Spencer a tick faster. The throw was behind him, too, although I'm not sure if he scores anyway. The deep throw to Devin Smith for the last touchdown was Barrett's best throw of the night and perhaps the season. As Tom Herman noted after the game, it was important to see him hit that throw because he had been off on some deep balls earlier in the year.
  • Cincinnati's last long touchdown pass was pretty much the spread football version of going play action bomb off of an isolation run off tackle, but unlike the old-fashioned play-action combo, this stresses the cornerback instead of the safety. The Bearcats set it up with a few bubble screens, including one on the previous play right in front of Doran Grant. He triggered quickly on it and held it to a minimal gain with the help of Joshua Perry. Since it goes to the inside receiver, the play is the responsibility of the safety and linebacker, but Grant got there before safety Tyvis Powell could. UC receiver Chris Moore faked like he was blocking Grant then sprinted past him as well as Powell, who was doing his job by going to cover the slot receiver. Powell looked a little slow to trigger on the previous play, but he was pretty quick on the second. With no deep help, Grant had no chance when he got caught flat-footed.
  • Looked like Cincinnati had its own issues with cover four scheme on the TD pass to Dontre Wilson. Ohio State came out in a trips formation and the linebacker and safety both covered Evan Spencer while no one picked up Wilson, who was the far inside man in the formation.
  • More often than not you see No. 30 (Devan Bogard) show up on kickoff coverage for Ohio State.
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