NORMAN – Only three starters returned to a defense that lost almost 2,000 manned snaps from last year’s Ohio State Buckeyes squad that lost only one game all season. It hasn’t seemed to matter much, though.
And that’s a problem for Oklahoma's offensive line. The only way Oklahoma can keep pace with the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes is by matching their offense – and that starts with finding a crack in the OSU defense, beginning with the defensive line.
Defensive end Tyquan Lewis is the only returning starter on the defensive line, but Sam Hubbard steps into the starting lineup in place of first-round pick Joey Bosa after recording a pressure on 12 percent of his pass rushes. Behind them is middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who is one of the top linebackers in the country and leads a defense that has scored more points than it has allowed.
“There’s a lot of really good young players there,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “(McMillian) in the middle has played a lot of ball for them. He’s their leader. He’s really athletic. You can tell he’s really in sync with what they are doing. They don’t make many mistakes.
“They tackle great. They force you to really earn your plays. They just don’t give much. You have to go out there and be the aggressor. You have to go out there and make your plays. They’re not going to give you much. That’s why they are as good as they are.”
Ohio State (2-0) forced six turnovers against Tulsa and held the Golden Hurricane, the 13th total offense in the country last year, to just three points and 185 total yards.
The Buckeyes only allowed touchdown this season came on a Pick-6.
Like any team, it starts up front for Ohio State.
Lewis and Hubbard are on the edges, but defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle is out for the season. Oklahoma seemed to find the right combination on the offensive line, and it appears like the best five are in the starting lineup – something that offensive line Bill Bedenbaugh is always looking for.
Oklahoma has to get its running game going against a defense that has allowed just 127 yards on the ground through two games. The Sooners can’t be one-dimensional against a defense that is averaging more than four turnovers per game this season.
“You see excellent players,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “They've got good players at every spot and they're coached well, which is obvious and you see the athleticism, the speed everywhere.”
That is the main battle this weekend. Here’s a quick look at a few other key spots:
When Oklahoma has the ball. . .
Even as a redshirt freshman, Hooker has ascended to leader of the secondary and given Stoops reason to point him out. He’ll be the man in charge of organizing Ohio State’s primary defense against Mayfield, who has to be a better decision maker than he was against Houston.
To some extent, the Louisiana-Monroe performance is a throwaway for Mayfield. He has to prove that he can be the quarterback he was last year on a big stage – not in just a half against one of the worst FBS teams this season.
Hooker has three interceptions in two games, but Mayfield will have his hands full with the rest of the secondary. It’s a young group with potential that shutdown Tulsa’s air raid offense. Ohio State looks similar to Houston, but Oklahoma also looks similar to Tulsa.
Sooners’ run game vs. Ohio State run defense
Oklahoma doesn’t just have to hold off Ohio State up front, the Sooners have to beat the Buckeyes. There’s no set number of carries or yards that Oklahoma to meet, but Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine need to play a significant role if Oklahoma is going to hold off a rare home-field defeat.
Ohio State doesn’t get a ton of pressure on the quarterback, just 3.5 sacks through two games, but they hold up really well defending the run. Getting Mixon into open field is probably the best weapon that the Sooners have in terms of offensive production. A little bit of an attack through the air would also go a long way to opening up holes in the defensive line.
When Louisiana-Monroe has the ball. . .
Oklahoma’s outside linebackers vs. running Curtis Samuel
The way Oklahoma uses Mixon is the way Ohio State uses Samuel. Will Johnson, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Kapri Doucet and maybe even Caleb Kelly to some extent will play a big role in neutralizing Samuel. In fact, Kelly might be the best option because he is the closest match to Samuel’s speed and athleticism combination.
Samuel has 401 yards of total offense this season and is one of Ohio State best receiving weapons – used primarily in screens or just swinging out of the backfield. Like Mixon, he’s a mismatch weapon all over the field.
Stoops pointed him out specifically as the primary weapon in an Ohio State’s offense that has plenty of them.
QB contain vs. J.T. Barrett
There should be 90,000 people packed into Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. Do you really think Ohio State would survive without a veteran starting quarterback who will have to make some plays on his own? That’s exactly what Barrett is.
Now, Barrett hasn’t exactly filled up the stat sheet in Ohio State’s two victories, but he hasn’t had to do as much. He’ll be tested against Oklahoma, just like the Sooners will be tested by Barrett. Oklahoma didn’t allowed Greg Ward of Houston to escape and run for big yards, which is a positive. But Ward also extended plays in the backfield to make plays with his arm – something that really stung the Sooners.
Barrett has that same ability. Oklahoma has to take away his time and his space, while not getting burned by his legs.