In late August, the Ohio State football team embarked on a 12-weeks-plus journey that would take it as far west as the empty edge of the Great Plains (Nebraska) and as far east as the most densely populated state in the country (New Jersey).
But how far south would these Buckeyes travel when this 2019 season is all said and done? Would they advance as far as Phoenix or Atlanta, for playoff semifinals in late December?
And what of the ultimate southern destination, New Orleans? Does OSU have the talent, drive and gumption to be dining on gumbo in early January?
Answers to those questions remain out there, on the open road ahead. For now, the Ohio State tour bus has pulled into a proverbial rest stop, the first of two respites this season.
It’s a time for the Buckeyes to heal their bodies and unwind their minds after six games in six weeks, and gear up for what could be a demanding second half to the regular season.
It also allows time for Dispatch beat reporters Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman to join sports editor Ray Stein for an assessment of games passed and games to be played in the weeks to come.
Stein: I’ll be honest and say that as fall camp dawned I would not have expected Ohio State to be 6-0 heading into its first off week. I supposed I figured either Nebraska (stupidly, I drank the Scott Frost Kool-Aid) or Michigan State would have gotten them. Did you guys figure them at 6-0?
Rabinowitz: I did. I thought Cincinnati might give the Buckeyes a game. I thought before the season that Nebraska had enough momentum from last year that the trip to Lincoln might have an Iowa- or Purdue-type drama to it. And Michigan State is Michigan State. But I believed OSU was so talented that it should get to this point unbeaten, if Justin Fields developed and stayed healthy.
Kaufman: I’m not surprised they’re 6-0. Without a marquee nonconference game, like matchups against TCU and Oklahoma in recent seasons, it felt like a fairly safe bet in the preseason. But I am surprised with the ease they have reached 6-0. Their average scoring margin is plus-40.5 through six games, the highest in the nation. Only four other teams are plus-30. This stretch of dominance is rare.
Stein: That’s a great point; it’s not just that Ohio State is unbeaten in October — this makes nine times in the past 14 years — but it’s the ease with which the Buckeyes have sailed to their record. This team has a first-time head coach and a first-time starting quarterback. Who has surprised you the most?
Kaufman: It’s Fields. He’s talented, so it was logical to expect highlight-type plays in the early weeks. But he’s a first-time starter and had ups and downs in the opening stretch of preseason camp. It was reasonable to think there would be mistakes. Instead, he’s been remarkably polished, throwing only one interception and avoiding any lost fumbles. Keep in mind this is the first time he has been encouraged to throw the ball away or slide rather than run for extra yards. The learning curve has been accelerated.
Rabinowitz: I agree. Day had his three-game trial last year, as well as running things during training camp, which might have been more important. He showed no signs of being in over his head in 2018 and that has carried over. Fields arrived only in January and had to learn a new city, college, coaches — his position coach, Mike Yurcich, also is new — teammates and playbook. It’s remarkable that he hasn’t really made a misstep on or off the field.
Stein: Fields has been better than advertised — and that’s saying something considering the five-star hype that accompanied him from Georgia. But let’s talk about Day for a second. With all due respect to the highly decorated former Ohio State coach, this team seems much looser and, somehow, more confident. What vibe has Day brought?
Rabinowitz: Urban Meyer obviously was a ridiculously successful coach; nine losses in seven years is astounding. But he grinded everyone in the program. He prided himself on making people comfortable with being uncomfortable. That worked for him, but it takes a toll. Day is also ultra-competitive, but he has a warmer personality, and that has allowed everyone to take a breath. It’s tricky going from an assistant — a peer — to the boss, but Day has done that effectively. Of course, it helps to have the roster he mostly inherited and key people in the infrastructure remain in place. Strength coach Mickey Marotti, recruiting head Mark Pantoni, operations guru Brian Voltolini and player development leader Ryan Stamper are invaluable.
Kaufman: People have described the culture of Meyer’s program as a feeling of fourth-and-1 — everyone on edge. So, yeah, they’re living in a sweet spot right now. It’s scaled back, while still probably remaining among the more demanding and intense operations in major-college football. As one former player said in the summer, not every situation is fourth down.
Stein: Bill mentioned Marotti, and I thought it said a lot about the state of the program that the team awarded him the game ball after the win against Michigan State. OSU hadn’t really been called on to win a super-physical game, but it certainly was up to the task against the Spartans.
Kaufman: The off week came at a fortunate time for the Buckeyes, because Michigan State gave them a physical game, one that likely required more than a few ice bags afterward. Fields, who was sacked three times, said it was the most he had been hit in a game this season.
Stein: Going into that game, I don’t know that anyone thought OSU’s offense was soft, per se, but maybe that they were a finesse unit, a kinder term. But there was nothing soft about that performance, and there really hasn’t been all season.
Rabinowitz: Day has consistently preached toughness, so I’m sure he’s glad it was tested. We talked about Fields developing quickly, but the offensive line has been the foundation of the Buckeyes’ success. Left tackle Thayer Munford is the only holdover from last year. What he, Jonah Jackson, Josh Myers, Wyatt Davis and Branden Bowen (with help from Josh Alabi) have done is impressive.
Kaufman: As long as this discussion touches on toughness, the line or the ground game, it should involve Fields, too. He gives the offense a new element with a quarterback who can run, and against Michigan State he had double-digit carries for the second straight week. On third-and-goal at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, Day dialed up a designed run for Fields to follow running back J.K. Dobbins into the end zone. I’m not surprised Ohio State’s touchdown percentage in the red zone is 80 percent, up from 61 percent last season. Fields is like having an extra player.
Stein: His skill set is a sea change compared with pitching machine Dwayne Haskins Jr. from last year, but it’s also time we acknowledged the profound improvement of Ohio State’s defense. I mean, it’s night and day.
Kaufman: The biggest change from the defense is containing explosive plays. Over 14 games last season, Ohio State surrendered 12 plays of 50 or more yards. Only 10 FBS teams allowed more. In six games this season, it’s happened only once, when Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez scrambled for 56 yards in the third quarter of the blowout two weeks ago.
Rabinowitz: I credit the coaching staff for giving the defensive players a scheme they believe in. They’re playing fast and with a chip on their shoulder. The tackling against Michigan State was a little sloppy, but it has been solid otherwise. You’re seeing guys who were five-star recruits living up to that billing. Chase Young is the headliner, but Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade and Baron Browning are playing at a different level. Malik Harrison has built on last year’s success and Damon Arnette has been terrific.
Stein: The transformation on defense has been incredible, so much so that I’m looking at this team in a completely different light. The offense is such that I think anyone who wants to beat this team is going to have to score serious points. Could that happen? Sure; we’ve seen flukier things the past two years. But will it?
Kaufman: On paper, there isn’t an obvious challenger to the Buckeyes. Some teams, such as Wisconsin, have coaches who can match them with X’s and O’s on the chalkboard. Others, like Penn State, come closer to evening the talent gap. Ohio State has 60 former blue-chip prospects, and the Nittany Lions have the second-most among Big Ten teams with 50. But James Franklin hasn’t always delivered big wins in his coaching tenure. He’s 3-12 against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, the upper crust of the Big Ten East. The three wins have all been in Happy Valley, too. Penn State visits Ohio Stadium in November.
Rabinowitz: I agree that the team that should most concern Ohio State is Penn State. Sure, Wisconsin looks formidable, but I think the Buckeyes hold up in the trenches against the Badgers and Ohio State is too talented elsewhere. The Nittany Lions are the one team in the Big Ten that athletically has a chance to match up. They are young, but their inexperienced players have developed quickly. As for Michigan, who knows whether Jim Harbaugh’s team will have regrouped or imploded by late November. Regardless, I don’t see the Wolverines having the offense to match Ohio State.