Since raising the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy last January, Ohio State players and coaches have been reticent to talk about repeating as champions in 2015.
The Buckeyes have been more than willing, however, to talk about winning championships in November, the stated goal of the program every year.
That mission finally gets started this week as Ohio State begins Big Ten play with a trip to Indiana. The Hoosiers have gotten off to their first 4-0 start in 25 years thanks to a high-powered offense. Indiana is second in the Big Ten in rushing and passing offense and first in scoring offense with 38.2 points per game, bettering Ohio State in all three areas.
“We’ve just got to come to play because this is the best offense we are going to face so far this year,” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “They put up a lot of yards, and we just have to step up to the challenge.”
Indiana gave the Buckeyes fits last season, taking a 20-14 lead midway through the third quarter, and that was with freshman quarterback Zander Diamont at the controls. This year in Bloomington, Ohio State will have to contend with senior Nate Sudfeld, who missed all but six games last season with injury.
“I think it has a lot to do with the quarterback,” linebacker Joshua Perry said of Indiana’s success. “I know he is a really good player and he makes those guys go. He is a great leader. I know their running back is a really good guy too. People have been talking about him a lot and what he has been able to do. They throw the ball pretty well so obviously they’ve got some talent out there on the edges, so we are going to have to find ways to defend it.”
As Perry mentioned, Sudfeld has had help in the backfield this season as Alabama Birmingham transfer Jordan Howard has been dominant through four games. The junior is second nationally in rushing, averaging 168.8 yards per game on the ground.
Howard is a particular concern for an Ohio State defense that struggled a bit with the inside run against Western Michigan. The Buckeyes allowed 169 yards on the ground against the Broncos, the most they’ve allowed this season by 41 yards.
“They did a great job of scheming us up,” Perry said of the Broncos. “They had some plays we have never seen before. We were trying to come up with answers, and I think we did toward the end. We were doing some things a little differently defensively also because we knew that they had some weapons on the outside.”
Western Michigan’s success on the ground was a bit uncharacteristic as even after their 38-12 loss to the Buckeyes they are averaging only 112.3 yards per game on the ground. With Indiana, however, Ohio State knows that the Hoosiers are going to run the ball as they enter the game with the seventh-most rushing attempts nationally.
Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who had a career-high 16 tackles against the Broncos, said the Buckeyes welcome the challenge Howard and the Hoosiers present.
“It’s always good to have a challenge,” McMillan said. “We never want to go into a game where we know we are going to dominate someone physically because if you know you are going to dominate somebody you become lackadaisical during practice and don’t really prepare like you should.
“We’ve got to focus on tackling him and getting him down on the ground, not letting him get yards after contact. Everybody is going to try us each and every way this year, so we have to come into the game knowing that they’re going to try us and they are going to give us different looks and different things we haven’t seen yet. We have to get prepared for it.”
On the other side of the ball the Buckeyes are a little unsure of what they are going to get. Indiana played the same 3-4 defense that it used last season in its first game of the year before using primarily a 4-3 defense in its final three nonconference games.
The Buckeyes admittedly struggled with the 3-4 fronts of Hawaii and Northern Illinois, and offensive guard Pat Elflein said that the team is preparing for whatever the Hoosiers might throw at them in Bloomington.
“That’s what everyone’s been doing so we have to be prepared for all of that,” Elflein said. “We’ve pretty much seen everything from the end of last year to this year, facing ‘Bear’ and four down and all that. We have a plan for everything, so we’re pretty prepared for that. It’s just what we spend most of our time on during the week.
“It’s frustrating but that’s part of the game. You’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to be able to adjust on the fly. I’m sure we do that to teams on defense, too – give them a little nugget every now and then, something they haven’t seen yet.”
Jones Drops The ‘Or’
When the Buckeyes released their depth chart Sept. 29, there was one notable change. Entering each of the first four games of the season, the starting quarterback had been listed as “Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett.” Now the “or” is gone and Jones is the unquestioned starter for Ohio State.
The promotion comes after Jones put up a career-high 288 passing yards, but head coach Urban Meyer said the junior wasn’t as fundamentally sound as he could be against the Broncos.
Those remarks were in response to a handful of missed deep balls, specifically.
“We had about five, I want to say, at least six underthrown deep balls, which is very uncharacteristic of our quarterbacks, and that’s something that we’re going to work extremely hard on,” Meyer said. “The good thing is that we stretched the field. I mean, every one of those times we were behind them, we were underthrown.
“It wasn’t perfect, and when you have that many underthrown passes, that’s – I guess, if you had to pick your evils, if you are not executing down-the-field throws because your guys can’t get open, that’s a major problem. That’s a recruiting error, an effort error, something, and that wasn’t the problem. Underthrown balls are just a matter – especially if you can do it, it’s just a matter of execution.”
Finding a suitable replacement for Devin Smith, one of the best deep-ball receivers in Ohio State history, was a point of emphasis for the Buckeyes this offseason, and the team is still searching for that player.
A few of the missed deep balls against Western Michigan were intended for Jalin Marshall. The sophomore, who did catch a 37-yard touchdown, said that the receivers and Jones just need to work out the timing on those big hits, but that will take more than just practice reps.
“I think it is more so a timing thing,” Marshall said. “Being in an actual game is different than practice because in a game you have adrenaline rushing, you’re excited and you just want to make that play. I think we have to practice up to that potential. As we get better in the few weeks to come, I think we’ll be all right.”
On what it takes to be a deep-ball threat, he added: “Being able to beat your man, stack your defender and go out and catch the ball when it’s thrown past you and being able to open up the routes that are underneath you. I think that’s a big part of it. That’s what Devin did well, and that’s what we are trying to do now.”
- Indiana defensive tackle Darius Latham will not play against the Buckeyes as the junior was suspended indefinitely in connection with ongoing proceedings with the Indiana University Office of Student Ethics, according to a release from the university. Latham had 10 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks in three games this season.
- Marshall, who has been wearing No. 17 this season, has changed his jersey number to 7, the number he wore in high school, Meyer confirmed Wednesday.
- For the second straight week wide receiver Parris Campbell was not listed on the Ohio State depth chart. Campbell, a redshirt freshman who started the first three games but did not have a catch, left the Buckeyes’ contest with Northern Illinois with a knee bruise and a sprained ligament and did not play against Western Michigan.