Ten Things: What's going right with the Ohio State D and wrong with the O

One unit is trending the right direction and one isn't for the Ohio State football team, and we look at why for each team in today's Ten Things blog by Jeff Svoboda.

1. OK, I am a positive person in general and believe in optimism, looking on the bright side of life, so I’ll start with the Ohio State defense. And man, is the defense good. Going sideways against this team just isn’t gonna work, as the pursuit is too good. All three linebackers are fast and can get to the ball. The two safeties? The same, especially Vonn Bell. And everyone tackles. In today’s world, where teams love wide receiver screens and going side to side, this is a defense that is going to be very hard to game plan for. Take away one misdirection throwback pass by Virginia Tech and the defense would be pretty much impenetrable so far. The excellent coverage of the cornerbacks is also preventing teams from going downfield, so if you can’t go side to side and you can’t go down the field, what can you do?

2. The best part of Darron Lee’s interception? Well, the anticipation he had to make the play – getting so far into the backfield he was almost overthrown despite the fact the ball was thrown as soon as the QB took the snap – was pretty impressive. The ability to run it home looking like the high school ball carrier he was – that was nice. Even his ability to catch the ball despite the smoke that was on it was good. But to me, the real winner was the fact that Lee dropped a stiff arm on the intended receiver an instant after catching the ball. How many guys have the ability to pull off a play like that AND THEN drop the stiff arm, all in one fell swoop? Not many. When I saw Lee in high school, I thought, this guy is just a football player – he knows how to play the game. Turns out, he’s even better than that. He’s probably gonna be a first-round pick after this year as he is the straw the stirs the drink for the defense. No one fills up the stat sheet like him.

3. Before the season, my bold prediction for Ohio State was that Sam Hubbard would have more sacks than Joey Bosa. Three games into the season, he holds a 2.5 to 0.5 lead. Will it hold? I don’t know, but I do know that Hubbard is as good as I thought he might be coming into the season. He had one sack – in which he teamed up with Bosa – in which he ducked inside the tackle, pushed the running back aside and got home. So I got that one right.

4. Speaking of things I got right, on our new pregame Tailgate Show, I predicted that Eli Apple would earn an interception against Northern Illinois, so how about that? I also predicted that OSU would finish with 55 points and 550 yards and also that J.T. Barrett would take fewer than 15 snaps, so it’s not all wine and roses. But you gotta take the wins where they come – just like the Buckeyes right now.

5. I was walking down the ramp from the Ohio State locker room to the field after interviews and noticed the “Nine Strong” banner that is, in fact, the last graphic before the team runs out of the tunnel. So much about what OSU and Urban Meyer have done the past year is about being nine units strong, and five of those units – quarterback, running back, wideout, tight end and offensive line – are on offense. How many of those units are strong right now? One? Two? And even then, the Buckeyes are lacking depth at running back and tight end. The offensive line issues have been widely discussed, the quarterback situation is trending toward a full-blown problem and the wideouts are officially on notice. It’s not a great scene on the offensive side of the ball right now.

6. This point was brought up to me in a chat on the sideline late in the game with Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Doug Lesmerises. As Doug said, what if the ideal setup for Urban Meyer receivers is to have an NFL guy, a blocking guy and a deep threat guy, like the Buckeyes had last year? That piggybacked off of a tweet I had during the game in which I posted it seemed clear the Buckeyes were missing their best blocking receiver and best deep receiver from a year ago. They haven’t come close to replacing either yet, and both Evan Spencer and Devin Smith have been dearly missed. Part of the problem, as Doug suggested, is that they had a few guys they stuck with last year and each had roles. Want to run it? Evan is always good for a block. Want to go deep? We’ve got a guy for that. Want to throw a ridiculous reverse pass for a circus catch TD? Well we have that, too. This year, there’s Michael Thomas – a legit wideout – and a bunch of guys trying to figure out the position either because of youth or a position change. And the blocking has suffered as well. OSU hasn’t completed a pass of more than 25 yards the last two games. Think about that. Right now, the Buckeyes don’t really have a dependable option who can stretch the field vertically (and teams are noticing, creeping a safety into the box), while the blocking outside is making it tough to go horizontal (and even that took a hit when Parris Campbell left the game with a knee bruise). That’s a problem.

7. Moving on to the offensive line, I haven’t watched the film closely enough to posit an answer as to what is going on here. Just watching live and then checking out replays after each play on the press box TV monitors, the teamwork that was so evident last year – the line really functioned as a unit by the end of the season – seems to be a beat awry. As for the whys and wherefores, those are better questions for Ed Warinner, but it’s obvious things need to get fixed quickly. We can talk all we want about odd fronts – and make no mistake, teams have found this to be a legitimate way to attack Ohio State, by bringing pressure and making it tough to make the combo blocks that make the running game go – but it’s not like they were invented yesterday, either. Yes, NIU changed its defense from 80 percent 4-3 to a 3-4 blitzing look, but the Buckeyes can expect that to happen now that teams know it works. But just like OSU adjusted to the “Bear” defenses teams threw at it last year after Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes now must find answers to the odd fronts and do so quickly. But it’s more than just scheme – the Buckeyes are losing a few too many one-on-one battles right now, enough to bog down the offense, and that has to get better.

8. OK, I got to point 8 without mentioning the quarterbacks. This was worst-case scenario when the season started and here we are (well, OK, worst-case scenario would involve a loss, but one passing TD and three picks over a two-game span against non-Power Five opposition isn’t even close to ideal). It seemed to me Urban Meyer named Cardale Jones his starter this week hoping to quell any sort of “controversy” and his hope was that Jones would seize the role vs. Northern Illinois and settle things down. Instead he threw two interceptions almost immediately, one that could be attributed to a wet ball and one that was simply just a bad read. Problem is, J.T. Barrett wasn’t much better (and the offense arguably looked worse with him in the game, ending with seven consecutive drives of 20 yards or less that included four punts, two turnovers and the end of the game). Coming off the bench, Barrett just doesn’t look like the same guy he did a year ago when it was his show. Meanwhile, Jones seems to be trying hard to make his turn in the spotlight work only to see it blowing up in his face. It was thought Ohio State would be the team to turn the “If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none” mantra on its head. Instead, that axiom is ruling the day. So what needs to happen? It might come down to picking one guy and putting him in the best situation to succeed.

9. With that in mind, the there is a blueprint right now for what can work for this offense, and we saw it vs. Virginia Tech. Now, the Hokies sold out and said they’d live with a few big plays against if the defense generally resulted in stops, but the Buckeyes were able to take advantage of that and hit a number of house calls. Start hitting the big ones again and suddenly things look better. But here’s a stat that is quite surprising – OSU’s longest play of the last two weeks is 25 yards. Take away the home runs from this offense and the slugging percentage drops precipitously, and you’re left with a team that’s not quite consistent enough right now (thanks to points 6, 7 and 8) to march 75 yards down the field and score. But if the big plays come back, suddenly this offense will look a lot better. But big plays take 11 guys working together in unison to make things happen, and that has been lacking.

10. I’ve seen some fans ask if this feels like a team that could win the national championship again, but it’s too early to hit the panic button. Two top-10 teams lost Saturday, and frankly there aren’t a whole lot of teams in college football right now that look like world beaters. TCU had to hold off a charge from a game SMU team. Michigan State didn’t dominate, and Florida State looks extremely unsteady on offense. Oregon’s defense is trending toward nonexistent, and UCLA’s star freshman quarterback suddenly looks like a freshman quarterback. You don’t have to be a finished product in week three and looking around the landscape, no one is. So there’s plenty of time for the Buckeyes to be where they need to be.

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