Buckeyes pass eye test during blowout
It was easier to nitpick Ohio State's season-opening win over Florida Atlantic. As four-touchdown favorites, it failed to cover the point spread and looked somewhat ho-hum after going up 28-0 in the first quarter.
Warts were much harder to find in Week 2. The Buckeyes rolled Saturday in a 42-0 beatdown of Cincinnati. Not only did they pass their first real test of the season, but they also got a dominant victory over a quality team.
As throughout the season in “Inside the Beat,” Dispatch beat writers Joey Kaufman and Bill Rabinowitz analyze the game and its storylines and look ahead to the next one.
Kaufman: The headline of this feature last week noted that the Buckeyes had flashed their potential in the opener. But they did more than flash against the Bearcats. They looked in midseason form. While most observers expected improvement from the defense to start the season, considering the number of returning starters and the players’ eagerness to make up for a disappointing performance from last season, it was the offense that was the most attention-grabbing. Quarterback Justin Fields completed 80 percent of his passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns, then ran for two more scores. After two starts, he ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency. Talk about a fast learning curve.
Rabinowitz: Fields certainly doesn't look like an inexperienced quarterback. He was in complete command Saturday, aided by an offensive line that was nearly flawless in picking up Cincinnati blitzes. Fields has put up impressive stats, but the most impressive might be the zero on the interception total. He hasn't come close to being picked off. Coach Ryan Day has drilled the importance of avoiding turnovers into Fields practically from the moment he arrived on campus in January and it has paid off. I expected more initial growing pains, and they might still occur, but Fields looks like the complete package so far.
Kaufman: The efficiency and decision-making are definitely the most encouraging aspects for Fields’ development. There was a line of thinking before the season that he might be a boom-or-bust player. There’d be big throws and big runs, plenty of highlights, but also head-scratchers like an errant pass into tight coverage or a fumble on a run. In the first week of preseason camp, Day said there had been too many interceptions. You’d still probably take some of the bad because of the good. But it’s been remarkable that there has been very little bad, at least through two games.
Rabinowitz: Fields has been terrific, but offense is not a one-man act. I thought the offensive line was much more consistent Saturday, and J.K. Dobbins had 141 yards in one half, including a 60-yarder. Chris Olave, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack all made plays, as did freshman Garrett Wilson, who had the first of what I'm sure will be many touchdown catches. Cincinnati's defense was supposed to provide a test for Ohio State. It didn't.
Kaufman: Dobbins, in particular, looked much improved. His 8.3 yards per carry average was his best since the 2017 Big Ten championship game. He had some sizable holes to burst through, a product of the offensive line. There’s only so much space in this column allotted to gushing about Fields, but one more point is worth adding. His own running ability makes Ohio State's zone-read stuff harder to defend. Defensive linemen and linebackers have to account for two runners. That wasn’t available last season with Dwyane Haskins Jr. behind center.
Rabinowitz: Let's move on to the defense, which might be an even bigger story. The Buckeyes aren't going to have to hear about their 2018 struggles much longer. Talent was never the issue. Fundamentals, scheme and playing in sync were. Those have been cleaned up. It starts with the defensive line, and the line starts with Chase Young. What a beast he is. The linebackers are playing much better, as is the secondary. Jeff Okudah continues to make plays. Shaun Wade is a versatile tool. The defense has the depth to mix and match based on situations, and co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley are pushing the right buttons.
Kaufman: If someone had to rank the position groups for the Buckeyes, the defensive line would be No. 1. That includes offense, defense and special teams. It’s the most important. So much stems from the pressure they put on quarterbacks. Through two games, the Buckeyes have totaled nine sacks. Only four FBS teams have more. It was a pretty big reason why Cincinnati went only 3 of 14 on third down. And fans got a window into the unit’s depth when sophomore defensive end Tyreke Smith rotated in for a sack in the second quarter. There’s an excess of talent.
Rabinowitz: For months, we heard the Buckeyes' defensive players vow that they'd be much better. They have delivered. Big Ten play starts this week at Indiana. Though the Hoosiers have given OSU fits in recent years even without pulling an upset, if the Buckeyes play the way they did against UC, it won't be much of a contest. But each week is its own season, something Day has been preaching. It'll be a test of this team's maturity to see how they respond after a nearly flawless performance.