You look back at the stats from a year ago and it almost seems like they aren’t real.
When Ohio State lost 35-21 to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes ran for just 108 total yards, including 2.7 yards per carry. The Buckeyes gave up seven sacks and were just 4 of 16 on third downs. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech converted 9 of 17 third downs and held the ball for 33:30.
Those aren’t the numbers fans would get used to seeing from Ohio State a season ago as it romped to the national championship, but there’s a good reason why – you could say the Buckeyes weren’t the Buckeyes yet when that game happened.
It was just game two of the season, and the team wasn’t the team it would become. Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t the confident, tough-running superstar he’d become but just a guy making his second career start vs. the Hokies. Eli Apple and Billy Price weren’t freshman All-Americans but just redshirts making their second career starts.
Up and down the lineup, the Buckeyes weren’t the players they’d become vs. Virginia Tech, and that much is clear when they put on the film this week to look back at what happened a year ago in Ohio Stadium against the Hokies.
“We looked sloppy a lot of times,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “Execution wasn’t great, and fundamentally we were not great either. Even when you look at some of the tape from the end of the year when we were playing really well and you compare to some of the things that we emphasized in the spring, we still made a lot of improvements. It’s funny to look at the tape from of your team a year ago to where you are now, even a few months forward, and just how big a difference it is and the different things we emphasize.”
Added Apple, “There’s a couple of plays that I saw from last year you’re just like, ‘Wow, I could’ve made a play.’ But all you have to do is just watch the film and just try to fix it for the game now.”
So while one of the major storylines of the game is whether a similar Virginia Tech team to a season ago – one boasting an excellent defensive line and perhaps the best secondary the Buckeyes will face all season – can again spring an upset on Ohio State using a similar plan.
Of course, one must keep in mind the Buckeyes are a much different team from a year ago, and the ways in which the Buckeyes grew as last season went on were obvious when using the Virginia Tech game as a control.
For example, the offensive line took the brunt of much of last year’s struggles, as the Buckeyes had trouble both running and protecting J.T. Barrett. But as Ohio State offensive coordinator Ed Warinner reminds, it was more of a team loss, as the coaching staff had trouble adjusting to Virginia Tech’s stacked fronts in the run game. In the passing game, most of the Hokies’ sacks came on overload blitzes after the team took the lead in the fourth quarter.
“Our entire team and coaching staff didn't perform very well – ‘team’ meaning offensive team,” Warinner said. “I'm not speaking about special teams or defense. Our entire offensive unit did not perform well. We left plays on the field at every position. There were things the offensive line obviously needed to do better. There were things at quarterback that we could have executed better. There were things at wide receiver we could have done better.”
The Buckeyes, of course, got a lot better as the season went on and didn’t have a repeat performance – from a team perspective – and the line matured into the “Slobs” that paved the way to the title.
“At the end of the day, though, it helped us, in some ways, evaluate our offensive philosophy, our offensive game planning, preparation, practice habits, and it allowed us to grow quickly and understand that we weren't maybe as good as we thought we were or weren't where we needed to be,” Warinner said. “So we expedited and changed kind of our teaching and how we prepared, and it helped us grow in the long run.”
The same could be said on the defensive side. Ohio State didn’t let Virginia Tech move the ball with impunity – the Hokies finished with just 320 yards – but the visitors made enough plays and converted enough third downs to put the points on the board.
“You learn from that stuff, and you learn from the history,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “You're not just watching to harp on the negative things to show our guys how well we did not play, but also to watch what it is that they did. Obviously, they had a game plan, and they executed their game plan better than we did.
“So it's something that we spend a lot of time evaluating, but, again, we're not going to sit there and harp on the negative stuff. We're going to make sure our guys are ready to play, promote the positives and those kinds of things, but make sure we learn from the history of what happened.”
The history did help Ohio State become the team it would be, and now a much better team will head to Blacksburg looking to avoid repeating the mistakes of a year ago.