OSU defense delivering on vow to improve
Ohio State opened Big Ten play Saturday against a team that it has not lost to since 1988 but that more often than not has been a pesky foe. But the Buckeyes throttled Indiana 51-10 at Memorial Stadium.
It was OSU's most lopsided victory ever over the Hoosiers in Bloomington. As is the case every week, Dispatch beat writers Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman will dissect the game and what comes next for the Buckeyes.
Rabinowitz: I expected a comfortable Ohio State win. I didn't expect a complete dismantling of the Hoosiers. J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague combined for 299 rushing yards behind an offensive line that continually opened gaping holes. The Buckeyes' defense swarmed and suffocated IU's offense. Indiana didn't have a play for positive yardage until its third possession. Maybe if the Hoosiers' No. 1 quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., had been healthy enough to play, Indiana might have had a little more juice. But I highly doubt it would have made much of a difference.
Kaufman: The latest dominant win shared some similarities with Ohio State’s rout of Cincinnati the previous week. Both the Hoosiers and Bearcats were expected to test the Buckeyes in various ways. Cincinnati had a formidable ground game with a tough enough offensive line that they were compared favorably to a Big Ten team. But they were stuffed at the line of scrimmage by the Buckeyes’ defensive line. Indiana could have found success in the air. Peyton Ramsey, who replaced Penix, started last season in Columbus and threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. But Ohio State’s secondary was much tougher this time. Ramsey passed for only 162 yards and was intercepted by Damon Arnette, who returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.
Rabinowitz: Arnette is one of many Buckeyes defenders who has made dramatic improvement from 2018. Arnette earlier Saturday had a nifty pass breakup in the end zone. His decision to return for his senior season has been a great one for both him and the Buckeyes. Linebacker Pete Werner, returning to his native Indiana, made a couple of big tackles early and has looked like a different player this year as well. Cornerback Jeff Okudah was solid last year but is now playing like the first-round NFL pick he has long been projected to be. And then there's Chase Young, who was plenty good last year despite playing on injured ankles. He has turned into Bosa III this season — often unblockable.
Kaufman: It feels as if this has been repeated ad nauseam by observers, but the Buckeyes’ defense has been much improved, a credit to all the players mentioned above. But they have really made good on the chatter from the preseason about being a more aggressive unit and playing faster. It has resulted in more disruption. In the first three games, they have averaged 10 tackles for loss. Last season, they averaged seven tackles for loss. So they're making more plays behind the line of scrimmage. They're pressuring the quarterback more as well, with 4.7 sacks per game compared to 2.9 last season. It’s a smaller sample size, and the competition should increase with the Big Ten schedule, but for now, they’re doing what they promised.
Rabinowitz: We've gone several segments here without discussing what is usually Topic No. 1 — the play of the quarterback. Justin Fields looked so polished in his first two weeks that it started to feel as if he might just bypass the whole growing-pains thing entirely. Saturday, showed he still has some room for improvement. As Ryan Day said, Fields left some yards on the field. He overthrew a couple of deep balls and missed an open Austin Mack on a short toss in the end zone. It's not that he had a bad day. He threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. Probably the best thing about Fields' day is that he didn't disagree with the critiques and said he'd be better for having struggled a little bit.
Kaufman: The line of questioning for Fields after the game could have been viewed as nitpicking. He was still a major part of the team's success, throwing for three touchdowns. In all three of Ohio State’s games, he's thrown for at least a touchdown and run for at least touchdown, showing enough of his skill set as a dual-threat quarterback. But little things, such as his footwork and precision on some of the deep balls, matter. He needs to make strides in those areas over the season if the Buckeyes are to reach their ceiling of not only making the College Football Playoff, but upending the teams that have recently dominated the field: Alabama and Clemson.
Rabinowitz: It also should be noted that Fields doesn't have an interception or fumble. As for big tests, well, we might be waiting for a little longer than we thought. Miami University, which lost to Cincinnati 35-13 after taking a 10-0 lead Saturday, certainly won't pose one next week. And the next two opponents — Nebraska and Michigan State — aren't looking as formidable as expected. The Cornhuskers lost to Colorado earlier, and the Spartans' offense was as dreadful as ever in a 10-7 home loss to Arizona State in which MSU botched the end of the game in numerous ways. One thing is obvious at this point: Ohio State is clearly the team to beat in the Big Ten.
Kaufman: It’s an encouraging sign for Day that the Buckeyes have retained their position as Big Ten leaders. There has been no evidence through three weeks to suggest that Michigan and Penn State, despite their recent New Year’s Six bowl berths, are closing ground in the East Division. But the curve that Day’s program will be graded on is set by the other heavyweights across the country: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma. With each blowout win, it matters most how Ohio State measures up to those blue bloods.