Seven days have passed since Ohio State got its first taste of defeat this season, and what a bitter pill it was.
Last Saturday’s 49-20 loss to Purdue went down the Buckeyes’ gullet like a plate of 3-month-old cottage cheese with a castor oil chaser. At least, that helps describe the look on the faces of coach Urban Meyer and some of the OSU fans who had made the trip to Ross-Ade Stadium.
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The blowout loss was not, however, the first time the Buckeyes have had to deal with disappointment this season, which reached the two-thirds pole against the Boilermakers. Ohio State has been trying to patch problem areas all year long, ever since Artavis Pierce ripped off touchdown runs of 80 and 78 yards in OSU’s season-opening laugher against Oregon State.
The Buckeyes are an imperfect bunch, no doubt, and Purdue exposed every flaw to send them back to square one, as well as drop them from No. 2 to No. 11 in the polls.
So where does Ohio State go from here? The Dispatch’s OSU beat reporters, Tim May and Bill Rabinowitz, and sports editor Ray Stein discuss the Buckeyes’ road ahead.
Stein: That seems as good a place to start. A year ago after a humbling road loss, to Iowa, OSU ran off five impressive wins to end the season. Do you sense a repeat?
Rabinowitz: I don’t, unless they fix three phases of the game. It’s hard to win against good teams with only one dimension working, and the passing game didn’t come close to doing that against Purdue. The Buckeyes have to figure out a way to run the ball, which shouldn’t be a major problem but is. Defensively, it’s trickier. Without a dominant pass rush, Ohio State’s pass defense is vulnerable. A return to full(er) health for players like Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers and Damon Arnette will help, but the linebackers must play much better.
May: It can happen, because I think a couple of the problems — the running game and the penalty plague — are fixable. But the defense? Last year’s team had some veterans, now all in the NFL or thereabouts, who stepped up in that five-game run and took care of business. It’s tough to see that happening at the moment.
Stein: That leaky defense, to me, is a huge difference between this OSU team and others that have had to negotiate a midseason defeat. I’m just not seeing it with this unit. Obviously Nick Bosa’s absence leaves a hole, but do you think his loss has affected them psychologically as much as physically?
May: Losing an elite player hurts any team. It also tests that next-man-up credo. But Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper, now the starting ends, played well at Purdue. Where the Buckeyes are getting sliced and diced in the run game is the interior. Bosa didn’t play tackle — or linebacker.
Rabinowitz: I think it has. Bosa’s presence forced offenses to gear their protection toward him, freeing others. Young and Cooper did play well last week, but they are first-year starters and you just can’t replace perhaps the best defensive player in college football. But the front four is still the strength of the defense, which says a lot about the back seven.
Stein: It’s just not meshing back there, is it? Do you see the issues as scheme or personnel?
Rabinowitz: Ohio State’s pass defense is predicated on a consistent pass rush and cornerbacks who can thrive in press man-to-man coverage. The rush has been OK and at times good. But I don’t see a Denzel Ward or Marshon Lattimore at corner. I think Jeffrey Okudah has first-round ability eventually and Kendall Sheffield has the tools, but consistency isn’t there.
May: Receivers are going to get open when press-man is the theme. My issue has been with the linebacker play and scheme, which is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. I don’t like how the linebackers are taking on blockers and/or attacking gaps. It often is taking them out of the second line of the defense. It was maddening last week to see the defense making a big play one snap, then give it all back the next.
Stein: Let’s switch to offense, specifically the running game. Collectively, we’ve all seen a lot of Ohio State football. But have we ever witnessed anything like this, where clearly talented running backs are finding no room?
May: I don’t remember a run of games like this, pardon the pun. What can rectify this situation is adopting more of a pro-style approach. Just like in the NFL, the quarterback — in this case, Dwayne Haskins Jr. — would prefer not to run and goes down easy when he does. So limit the run-pass option plays, which takes the offensive line out of limbo, and on run plays let them fire out. That’s no major fix, just a shakeup.
Rabinowitz: As much as it pains me, I agree with Tim. Opponents want Haskins to run and would live with whatever yardage he gets. It’s more important for the linemen to get back to the mentality of wanting to pound people. The RPOs seem to have caused the linemen to play more on their heels.
Stein: So do you guys think this team comes out of this break with an offensive identity? Or did we see that Saturday when they came out in the second half and threw nine straight passes?
May: Ohio State is one of the more prolific passing teams in the nation, and how many times has that phrase been uttered? They could have been in the game at Purdue if a couple more passes had found their mark. But the Buckeyes have to be able to run it, too. That’s all we're arguing, and what Urban Meyer is demanding.
Rabinowitz: I think they will have spent the off week trying to fix the run game. Meyer and his staff believe — I have to think — that they can’t be one-dimensional and beat a team like Michigan or the team(s) they would face afterward. With tailbacks like J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and a line that should be able to knock people off the line, I sense a recommitment to a balanced attack.
Stein: We’ve talked a lot here about fixes Ohio State can make — little things and bigger things. But how much of this uneven season falls on the coaching staff? I think it can be argued that the Buckeyes have been outcoached by their past three opponents, though they didn’t get bit until last week. Are these rock-hard times in the Woody Hayes center?
Rabinowitz: The coaching staff bears most of the blame. Not having the field-goal team ready for the fake field goal by Purdue is inexcusable, given the situation. The predictability of the offense — wide receiver screens and deep throws consitute an outsized percentage of the plays — and the repeated defensive breakdowns resulting in big plays falls on the coaches. For a staff this experienced, it’s disappointing having the same flaws week in and week out.
May: The Buckeyes outscored Indiana 21-6 in the second half and Minnesota 13-0 in the second. That’s not getting outcoached, but they were by Jeff Brohm and Purdue in all phases. Bottom line, a great coaching staff takes what it has and turns it into something better, playing to the strengths of all concerned. This staff has let that ethic slip as the season has progressed, but changes can be made. I mean, Bear Bryant and his Alabama staff installed the wishbone in preseason camp, for goodness sakes. Putting the power back into the Ohio State power-spread shouldn’t take that long.