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Cus Words: Will the real Buckeyes please stand up?

I feel like I wrote a few columns like this during the Jim Tressel era, but this is a first for Urban Meyer’s time in Columbus. 

What we learned last week: If Ohio State has long-term concerns on offense, they go beyond the quarterback. 

In fact, they probably barely involve the quarterback at all. 

The Illinois game was not really a new lesson so much as a reminder. A confirmation? That’s probably going too far because there are still games to play and we may not have seen the best the Buckeyes have to offer yet. 

To review: Ohio State has an offensive line that can mash people in the running game but isn’t nearly as strong in pass protection as it was last season. 

Ohio State has deep threats at receiver, but greatly reduced depth and experience still limit how much they can be called upon to do great things. That is to say that while Jalin Marshall, Braxton Miller and Michael Thomas can all get open down the field, they can’t run deep on every play without someone spelling them at least from time to time. That affects overall play calling. 

And speaking of the overall play calling, I’m sure it could be a lot worse, but it still doesn’t necessarily seem to make things as easy to execute as they could be. Maybe that’s just a fact of life with the aforementioned personnel issues, or maybe they really have been holding some things back. Or maybe there is a deficiency there, too. 

What is certain is that the insertion of J.T. Barrett at quarterback masks some of those problems if for no other reason because he can make something out of nothing better than Cardale Jones. It would be better for Ohio State if it could dictate to defenses because it is strong at every position group, as was the case almost all of the time last season regardless of the quarterback, but that just isn’t how things are this year. 

What seemed certain, too, was that the offense finally was executing better under Barrett in the previous two games he played. Then the overall blahness returning with Jones starting the Minnesota game seemed to be a confirmation there really is a tangible difference in the effect of the intangibles each guy does or does not bring to the position and how they affect not just one position but many. 

But some of those problems outside of the quarterback’s control (pre-snap penalties, pass protection, general execution) returned in Champaign. Why that is would be is a matter of speculation, but it’s something to keep an eye on because it must be eliminated the rest of the way. 

Then again, the performance at Illinois could also be a fluke because we’re dealing with a very small sample size as far as Barrett having the reins in 2015. 

It was unfair to blame Jones for the penalties and lack of execution around him when he was starting and unfair to expect them to go away because of Barrett’s presence — but they did for a half against a good opponent and a full game against a very bad one. 

Was that a coincidence? After some initial skepticism, I was inclined to think not, but we’ll have to wait and see. 

None of this is to say Jones should be playing now. He had his chances and didn’t take advantage. Barrett is definitely the guy who can take this offense the farthest based on what we’ve already covered as far as available talent (and perhaps play calling), but the hints that the ceiling isn’t what it was expected to be or what it was last year are still there. 

Of course the Buckeyes could still come out these next two weeks and look like a different team. 

Illinois is a place weird things often happen, the Fighting Illini have a good defensive line and Ohio State still won by 25 points. 

Motivation is real. Sometimes there are just “blah” days. Just like it wasn’t fair to put too much blame on Jones for those earlier in the season, it wasn’t fair to expect Barrett to keep them away entirely because he didn't last year, either. 

Barrett was part of a team-wide rise up against Michigan State just like Jones was part of a team-wide surge in the postseason. 

Barrett was a part of a team-wide wane in execution against Indiana and Michigan last season much like Jones was a part of those disappointing early games this season. However, this season Jones also did less to overcome the issues occurring around him than Barrett did against the Hoosiers or especially a much better Michigan defense that he stung for some very big plays. 

Barrett is the guy now, but he’s going to need more help (upstairs and on the field) now that the real games are about to begin. 

What we can expect to learn this week: If Ohio State really was playing possum for much of this season. 

That can seem like a copout, a convenient excuse for the lack of blowouts the Buckeyes enjoyed last season. And maybe it is. Maybe Ohio State just isn’t that great and that’s why the Buckeyes have had more issues this season. 

But it is worth remembering they were at times plagued by self-inflicted wounds in 2014, too, even at Michigan State when they beat a good team handily. 

While I say the offense’s ceiling appears to be lower in 2015 than last season, we also have to remember the 2014 offense was one of if not the best in school history. 

And on top of that I still believe the Buckeyes have room to grow this year and are plenty good enough to win it all again even just based on what they have shown so far. 

The latter is especially true if the defense continues playing as well as it has for most of this season because that is much better than it was for most of last season. 

And that brings us to this week. 

It’s amazing to see how the script has flipped for these two teams since 2013 as now the Spartans are the ones who have major issues on defense (especially in the secondary) but have a high-powered offense that can outscore some of those problems. 

Meanwhile, Ohio State has been effective but not a juggernaut on offense against mostly suspect competition — and that has been OK because of how good the defense has been. 

Both teams have faced questions about how much they have really been motivated for a good many of their games, and if they have not always dealt perfectly with being the hunted that is understandable. 

Pretty much everyone has been of the opinion this was a season that would be defined by how it ended with little drama in the first 10 weeks, and that has certainly been true for Ohio State on the field. 

Michigan State had the huge showdown with Michigan but otherwise hasn’t had much to get excited about. Given the state of the Nebraska program, one could attribute that loss to a letdown, but it was also another indication of how far the MSU secondary has fallen in two years because of graduation and injuries. 

Last season’s Ohio State win was mostly about superior personnel, but the Buckeyes also won the Xs and Os battle. 

Mark Dantonio admitted as much (in not so many words) during his press conference this week when he explained they had both execution and physical issues on the outside with “structural” problems inside. 

My translation would be his defensive backs had one blown assignment but mostly couldn’t hang with Ohio State’s receivers while the Buckeyes’ running game was effective because they utilized Barrett on runs designed to take advantage of the fact Michigan State’s safeties keep an eye on the run but aren’t attacking the line of scrimmage, either. MSU tended to play with essentially a half an extra man in the box, not a full one. That means with an extra blocker, runs of five to six yards are almost guaranteed as long as you’re willing to take them and stay patient. 

Will MSU respond differently this year? What will that do to the back end of the defense? And can Ohio State take advantage? 

We’ll find out on Saturday night. 

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