Don’t look now, but the Ohio State football bandwagon is quickly filling again.
Discarded like road kill on the college football expressway after Oklahoma planted a flag in Ohio Stadium in week 2, the Buckeyes have rebounded in a huge way.
OSU has outscored its past five opponents by an average score of 53-11, its offense has topped 500 yards in each of the five games to set a school record and its defense has been even better in dictating play when its starters are on the field.
Ohio State has risen to No. 6 in the polls and ascended back into the national conversation, at least on the fringes.
But how much of the Buckeyes’ resurgence is due to their improved play and how much can be attributed to the sharp downturn in competition since the Sooners left town?
With Ohio State in its off week, Dispatch sports editor Ray Stein and OSU beat reporters Tim May and Bill Rabinowitz discuss where the Buckeyes have been and where they may be headed in the second half of the season.
Stein: Let’s start there: Have these past five weeks been a mirage or a revelation?
Rabinowitz: It’s not a mirage, but I’m not prepared to label the last five weeks as definitive proof, either. The opponents since Oklahoma have been awful. It was actually sad watching Nebraska last week. Until the Buckeyes can dominate a formidable team, it’s wise to withhold judgment to some degree. But there’s also no denying that OSU is a different team than it was against Oklahoma.
May: In such runs I always judge a team not just by whether it wins, but whether it wins as it should. Ohio State has done that and then some. By comparison, a Nebraska team that undefeated Wisconsin didn’t put away until the fourth quarter the week before fell smoothly and steadily to the Ohio State combine driven by J.T. Barrett. In a week full of upsets nationally by equally or even bigger underdogs, the Buckeyes took care of business. That’s the sign of a focused team.
Stein: Agreed. But doesn’t history also tell us to beware such gaudy blowouts? Just last year, that same piece of farm machinery plowed through Nebraska and Maryland by identical 62-3 scores, then could barely buy a touchdown the rest of the year. Is this any different?
May: It always comes down to execution against better defenses, and I have preached forever that a team has to be able and willing to throw in those games. I see changes in the OSU passing attack — crossing routes, read progressions, etc. — I haven’t seen in years. But protection, and receivers getting separation and catching the ball, will be the challenge going forward.
Rabinowitz: I also think we’re seeing what we thought we’d see from new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes, specifically head coach Urban Meyer, thought they would hit the ground running, but the Oklahoma game showed that they couldn’t escape growing pains. After the Nebraska game, Meyer alluded to familiarity with the OSU personnel and the chemistry they have.
Stein: The offense clearly is a more cohesive unit than the one that could not answer Oklahoma. But I’m still wary. So what is the position to watch when OSU plays a team with better athletes than the past five opponents have, starting with Penn State?
Rabinowitz: It has to be the offensive line. Last year, one of the most overlooked factors against Penn State was how its pass rush took a toll on Ohio State. The right side of the Buckeyes’ line has to play at a championship level, particularly. Tackle Isaiah Prince struggled in big games last year. He has been better, but these are the games that will tell.
May: I agree. Past that, another big question is whether the receiving corps is for real. With that in mind, the play of late of tight ends Marcus Baugh and Rashod Berry has been encouraging. Watch any major collision, and that’s where the gravy can be found — tight ends catching passes.
Stein: That sounds like a non sequitur to me, but let’s go with it. Speaking of collisions, the Ohio State front seven has been responsible for a lot of violent ones. They have been lights-out, but if I’m an opposing team I prepare to throw 50-plus passes against the Buckeyes. Agree?
May: That is a point I make every chance I get. To beat Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and other elite defenses, a team has to be willing to throw it — a lot. It’s where the fewest defenders are. And in that scenario, odds are the defense is going to give up some plays.
Rabinowitz: The problem for opponents is that unless their quarterback is mobile — like Baker Mayfield — exposing him to OSU’s pass rush that many times comes with substantial risk. Not only can the pass rush force hurried throws that can turn into interceptions, but the quarterback could take such a beating he doesn’t make it through the game.
Stein: In that light, I see one quarterback on Ohio State’s remaining schedule — Trace McSorley of Penn State — who has the ability to really burn the Buckeyes. Say whatever you want about Saquon Barkley; to me, stopping McSorley is the key to beating Penn State.
Rabinowitz: I’ll throw in another name — Mike Gesicki. The Buckeyes recruited the tight end hard, and Gesicki has shown why. He’s tall and athletic, capable of making acrobatic catches. So yes, Barkley and McSorley are huge threats, but Gesicki is also a load.
May: Northwestern found ways to control Barkley, and Penn State still won handily because of McSorley, Gesicki and others. Like Baker Mayfield, McSorley can run and keep plays alive, the bane of a press coverage defense that relies primarily on its front four to bring pressure. That will be the challenge next week.
Stein: So the Ohio State offense has been better and the defense has been great. The special teams? Meh. But they obviously haven’t killed the Buckeyes. Are people making too big a deal about the foibles in the kicking game?
May: Ha-ha! Sorry, I thought I was supposed to laugh, because last year at Penn State, McSorley and Barkley didn’t beat the Buckeyes. It was giving up a blocked punt that turned into a field goal and a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. The mistakes on special teams in the 48-point win over Maryland were enough to get a team beat against a peer opponent. On a windy night in Nebraska, though, the special teams played well with the exception of the first two kickoffs.
Rabinowitz: Tim answered that pretty definitively. In a big game, everything matters. But I’ll add that if OSU gets the chance to cover a lot of kickoffs, with its accompanying fear, that means the Buckeyes have scored often. Other than kickoff coverage, special teams have been pretty good. Opponents have zero punt return yards this year, a testament to freshman punter Drue Chrisman.
Stein: Speaking for myself, I can’t wait for some of these games that actually mean something. Is it just me, or is this starting to feel like a 2014 redux (regular season only)?
Rabinowitz: There is a bit of that feel, but I try to be cognizant of how special and unlikely that kind of season is. I believe the Buckeyes are capable of that kind of run. I also wouldn't rule out the possibility that these five weeks of dominance have been fool’s gold. Like you, I'm glad we'll find out soon enough.
May: The key will be the offensive line play, just like last year, because this offense has options it didn’t have a year ago in the passing game. There are emerging players on the catching end, such as Binjimen Victor, and combine that with two proven running backs and a veteran quarterback whose confidence is on the rise, and they should be able to find ways to pick the locks.