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Ten Things: Thoughts on Barrett, Hale and OSU's championship-level defense

Ohio State's season is nearing its boiling point, and Jeff Svoboda has some thoughts on where the Buckeyes are, where they go from here, and how to make sense of the Big Ten race.

1. I think one thing people sort of forgot going into this game looking at Minnesota’s record is that the Golden Gophers do have a good defense – one good enough to allow them to hang with Michigan one week prior. Minnesota entered the game in the top 25 in the nation in passing defense, passing efficiency defense and first downs allowed, and this is a team that had put together solid defensive performances against very good teams like TCU and the Wolverines. Having said that, Alabama had a good defense last year, too, and Ohio State hung 42 on ‘em, so let’s not act like it wasn’t possible for Ohio State to do better on offense than it did. It looked a lot like the Cardale offense so far this year – some moments of brilliance interspersed with some times where it just looked like the unit was stuck in the mud (and some moments where the QB just lacked the pocket presence, quick trigger and accurate arm to make the thing happen that needed to happen). What does that mean? It’s J.T. Barrett’s show again.

2. Here’s an interesting thought – what happens with Cardale Jones’ pro prospects? He’s now essentially lost his starting job twice. What happens now? Does he leave after this year? If he does, that inconsistency and inaccuracy likely won’t make him a high pick, unlike a year ago when his limited tape and stunning playoff performance likely would have made him the third QB taken. If he stays, he’s also not guaranteed a starting job as Barrett will be back next year. So what’s next for Cardale? In the words of a great philosopher I know, makes you think.

3. Random thing I noticed – there was at least one time when OSU lined up with Braxton Miller in the Wildcat – wait, I hate that term. Wildcat is not a formation, it’s just a colloquialism for a direct snap, so let’s go with that. Miller lined up to take a direct snap, and the Buckeyes used an unbalanced line. That is, two tight ends and a guard to the left of center, then three linemen – a guard and two tackles – to the right. It didn’t really work but it shows they’re trying some different things to get things going in that regard. One thing the direct snap is supposed to do – equate numbers – is supposed to account for its flaw (predictability) but that doesn’t seem to be happening with OSU and Miller. I still think he throws a pass or two out of it at some point this year.

4. All year I’ve thought it was fair to describe Ohio State as having a championship-level defense – a term Urban Meyer loves to use – and I still feel like the Buckeyes are on track to have one. We’ll see at the end of the year when OSU goes through its end-of-season gantlet, but so far, so good. Right now, Ohio State is 13th in the nation in total defense, sixth in scoring defense, fifth in passing D and ninth in passing efficiency defense. OSU has allowed just 23 plays of 20 yards or more, tied for first in the nation, and the advanced stats like the Buckeyes as well – 15th in the country in FEI (efficiency) and 12th in S&P+ (though that number is 43rd in just rushing plays, which has long been my worry about this D if it has to face a Fournette or a Herny). All in all, by just about any measure, this is a defense that can compete with any in the nation.

5. One guy I’m really happy for right now? Joel Hale. Just a straight shooter and a team guy, and I enjoyed writing this story on him earlier this year because he deserves it. And right now he’s starting and being somewhat impactful for the Buckeyes. That’s great stuff. On another note, how good is Tyquan Lewis right now? I just didn’t know what to expect out of him – it’s not like he was as highly recruited as, oh, just about every other OSU D-lineman, and he’s from North Carolina so we didn’t get to have that local hype when he was in high school – but he’s just a ball player. Before the year, I said Sam Hubbard would have more sacks than Joey Bosa this year – and he does! – but Lewis has more than them both. Didn’t see that one coming.

6. Well, we’re one game away from go time. After OSU’s win at Virginia Tech, people said, “Well, the Buckeyes will be 10-0 now,” and they were right. I mean, let’s be honest, Illinois isn’t beating this team. There have been some scares – Northern Illinois was close, and Indiana scared OSU – but this is where the big-boy football starts. Even with MSU’s loss, that’s still a huge game, as is Michigan, and then it looks right now like the Big Ten title game will be a pretty big deal, too. Get ready, Buckeyes. Get ready.

7. OK, it might be time to have a talk about targeting, which is probably the most controversial NCAA rule at this point. I saw three different targeting calls while watching football on Saturday, all at different levels of outrage. The first came on Vanderbilt’s late drive that tried to tie the game, as a Florida defensive end was called for targeting on a sack. He clearly didn’t try to hit the QB’s head, but he did, and it was a borderline call but probably the right one based on the wording of the rule at the end of the day. Then, when watching Indiana vs. Iowa, there was an absolutely textbook call – an Indiana linebacker a) lowered the crown of his helmet b) into the head c) of a receiver in the act of making a catch, d) causing the receiver to leave the game to be evaluated for a concussion. A call doesn’t check off more boxes than that, yet I saw some Indiana writers questioning the decision. Then there was Joshua Perry’s targeting call, one which I generally agree should have been taken off the board because a) he didn’t make first contact with Mitch Leidner’s head and b) he didn’t lower the crown of his helmet (despite what the trolls would have you believe).

But at the end of the day, the reality is these calls have been created and put into the rulebook for one reason – we’re coming to the realization that repeated blows to the head probably aren’t good for the brain (a pretty reasonable concept, really). And college football officials have been told that when in doubt, err on the side of caution – for good reason. Too many people want intent to be part of the call, but no one in football in 2015 goes into a hit with the intent of causing a brain injury. They happen when people play recklessly and put themselves into the position, accidental or not, of hitting high. At the end of the day, these penalties have to be called for the future of the sport – whether fans like them or not.

8. Michigan State’s defense is officially a fly zone. OK, it’s been that way since Darqueze Dennard went out the door, as the Spartans were pretty well shredded by the best teams they played last year (Oregon, Ohio State and Baylor). But those were among the best offenses in the nation in 2014, so at least the Spartans shut down the bad teams in the passing game. This year? Not so much. Michigan State is now 86th – let me repeat that: 86TH! – in the nation in pass efficiency defense after that horrendous showing against Nebraska, which sliced and diced the Spartans all afternoon and then went 91 yards in the last minute for the winning TD. Yeah, the score probably shouldn’t have counted, but at the same time, make a play, Sparty! Michigan State now has given up 365 passing yards to Western Michigan, 305 to Oregon, 149 vs. Air Force (which might be the most stunning number here), three touchdowns to Rutgers and Indiana, and now 320 yards to Nebraska. This in a conference in which Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State are in the top 15 in the nation in pass efficiency defense – evidence that this isn’t exactly the best passing league. So yeah. It’s a fly zone.

9. You have to wonder about James Franklin and Penn State. I’m still dumbfounded they’ve been able to turn Christian Hackenberg – a quarterback just about anyone in the country would love to have – into an overwhelmed hood ornament. Yes, he’s immobile, and yes, his offensive line stinks, and yes, he needs to play better. But when I watch Penn State, I don’t see a team making the best use of its talent on the offensive side of the football, and that starts with Big Hack. Even with recent sanctions, Penn State has more talent than Northwestern – there are four or five guys, including Hackenberg, that Northwestern can’t match up with in terms of talent – and it still doesn’t matter as Northwestern simply played a better team game in its win Saturday. Northwestern looked better coached and better prepared than Penn State and likely wouldn’t have needed a late field goal if its kicker had had a better day or its starting QB hadn’t gotten hurt. Franklin continues to recruit well – and the Nittany Lions are starting to see the fruits of that labor in the person of such talents as Saquon Barkley – but time will tell if he’ll make best use of those players. I think he will – you don’t win nine games at Vanderbilt without some ability to coach – but I’m not as convinced as I once was.

10. Saving my last point for the last game – Michigan. I was talking to someone recently who said something to the effect of, “Harbaugh’s gone a great job, but I’m not sure he can get Ohio State this year.” I’m starting to think this is a pretty short-sighted viewpoint. Yeah, Michigan has two losses and OSU has zero, but the Wolverines two losses were to Utah and MSU teams that have been in the top 10 this season – and Michigan hung with both of those teams. Ohio State is still looking for an opponent nearly as good as either of those two and hasn’t exactly blown out its slate either. OSU does have more talent than Michigan still, but Jim Harbaugh has done a great job with the Wolverines and this is a team that is certainly playing well enough to beat Ohio State. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the advanced stats. S&P+ has Michigan’s defense as the best in the nation, and in overall S&P+, Michigan is third, one spot ahead of OSU. In overall F/+, Michigan is fourth – again, one spot ahead of OSU. The Game is going to be a war. 

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