What we learned last week: I've been putting off writing this week's column because I wasn't sure how to answer the usual starting question.
I'm not sure if we definitively learned anything, but hints about what this team is and can be all about continued to emerge.
Certainly they can make plays on offense. And last week we saw the defense getting into the act, too.
Perhaps the top lesson is this: The 2014 Ohio State football team appears to have the capacity to learn and evolve that some don't. That's not necessarily better than entering the season as an aged, finished product, but it is something.
On both sides of the ball, we have seen evolutions in strategy that were only in the seedling stages at the start of the season starting to bear fruit.
Although the big focus as far as Xs and Os was on the defense during the offseason, the changes are more obvious on offense so far. That is kind of ironic because they didn't really change the offense, they just found different parts of the playbook to exploit. Why didn't they use those as much in the first two years Urban Meyer, Tom Herman and Ed Warriner were the offensive braintrust in Columbus? A combination of lack of appropriate personnel and quite frankly lack of need.
Why did the offense revolve so tightly around Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde the past two years? Because with the help of the offensive line, they were good enough to carry the load almost by themselves. There were potential extra contributors, but they had a hard time breaking through despite some opportunities, and they largely didn't answer the bell late in the season when the competition ramped up. Consistency consistently lacked.
With Hyde gone and the offensive line facing life without a different person in every starting spot compared to last season, the coaches spent the entire offseason preparing to transfer those supporting cast members into leading roles, probably forcing them if necessary instead of letting them fade to the background as they have in the past. That's why in our preseason print edition, I wrote that the Miller's injury wasn't a death blow to the team's chances of accomplishing its regular season goals and the offense might not look much different than it was going to anyway or be much less effective on a play-to-play basis.
That prediction relied on a few guys doing things we haven't seen before in a real game, not the least of which was J.T. Barrett. Yes, the quarterback's role is important, but he has demonstrated that Meyer's offense can let a quarterback put up tremendous numbers even while merely playing above average. That is especially true with the jet sweep/shovel pass that has become a staple of the offense this year. Why did we not see more of it in the past? There was no one to give it to who was very close to as dangerous as the guy who caught the snap in the first place. Why is that significant? Because as nice as constraint plays are, the butter is breaded by the explosive ones.
An interesting reality in Meyer's spread offense -- and pretty much all of them, really -- is this: While they are designed to get around that pesky problem of having to actually block people, they can't eliminate the value of breaking tackles. In fact, they amplify the latter significantly. If you watch how Meyer and Herman call plays, you'll see this displayed. If they can simply block everyone, they will keep it simple and run up the middle. If they need to do more, they are really only interested in giving the ball to someone who can run right past everyone or who can juke them out of a jockstrap. Any down they can't do one of those three things is wasted in their minds, a departure from the days Jim Tressel and Jim Bollman were content to throw body blows and wait for the defense to make a mistake and allow a big play. Tressel and Bollman were much more OK with wasting downs (while the game was still in doubt) than their successors are. And in the minds of Meyer and Herman the past couple of years, having anyone other than Miller or Hyde handle the ball -- against a remotely competent defense -- was a wasted down, so they avoided it when possible even as they wished they could do more.
The only receiver Ohio State trusted in the past two years to run by defenders was Devin Smith, and the only receiver who would reliably get open underneath and catch the ball was Philly Brown. They used Smith to create big plays with his natural ability and the scheme to create openings for Brown when they needed to move the chains or get an easy gain on first down to set up the rest of the series.
Now there is someone to hand the ball to laterally and win or go deep and win, but they also have some physical guys who can turn a short gain into a long one, which is in all likelihood why there seem to have been more short patterns this season for Michael Thomas and Corey Smith.
And that brings us back to the quarterback. Barrett has been exceptional at taking advantage of these weapons. He's still not Braxton Miller, who made great strides in his ability to find open receivers and get them the ball last year, but he has filled the role the coaches were developing for Miller's senior year very well. That has been supplemented by the presence of the Smiths, Thomas, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall. Ezekiel Elliott and the offensive line have steadily improved after some shaky early moments, too, and the result is a full-fledged offense that can beat teams in a multitude of ways even if none of them are as individually dangerous as Miller or Hyde.
Of course what we don't know yet is how this group (now closer to maturity than when it struggled against Virginia Tech) will perform against an average or above defense, and whether or not Rutgers or Penn State fit that description remains to be seen.
The defense had an above-average day against a Maryland offense that provided a sterner test than its defense. The grade goes up if taking into consideration the Terrapins' biggest play of the day came at the expense of the No. 3 safety and their second-longest gain was a spectacular catch along the sideline made against blanket coverage, but the overall numbers were pretty solid anyway.
Blitzes are not an automatic panacea, but the Buckeyes had some success mixing in more pressure packages in College Park. The Maryland quarterbacks rarely looked comfortable in the pocket, and Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett also offered reminders they can win individual matchups to provide pressure, too. The more aggressive mindset also helped curtail Maryland's screen game, and the Terrapins don't have the offensive line to run against a good front seven.
Overall what we're seeing with this Ohio State team is a young squad that could be working its way into being a powerhouse by adding experience and knowledge to a talented base. We have not quite reached the mid-point of the season and there is no margin for error, but the future looks bright. That begs this question for this second week off: How soon will that future arrive?
Follow on Twitter @marcushartman