Beat reporters roundtable: Ohio State football at the midpoint of the regular season

Bill Rabinowitz Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Editor's note: After each Ohio State football game, beat reporters Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman discuss the lasting storylines and other key developments.

Ohio State is at the midpoint of the regular season after Saturday's easy 66-17 victory over Maryland. The Buckeyes had a bumpy start to the season but have now hit their stride, though it hasn't come against top competition.

That will change soon enough after Ohio State is idle this weekend. The second half of Ohio State's schedule will determine whether the Buckeyes truly are a championship-caliber team.

A healthy, confident C.J. Stroud has Ryan Day's offense putting up big numbers.

Rabinowitz: Coach Ryan Day said in his postgame news conference that Ohio State is a much different team than the one that played Minnesota and Oregon. It would be hard to argue with him. Redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud continues to become more comfortable. It helps to have the cast around him that he does. It's really hard to find a weakness on this offense. The defense is not at the offense's level, but it also is improving.

Kaufman: The Buckeyes did work out the kinks at just the right time, because the second half of the season is shaping up to be a gauntlet. Three of their final six opponents are ranked in the top-10 of the latest Associated Press poll with Penn State at No. 7, Michigan at No. 8 and Michigan State at No. 10. Then, if Ohio State reaches the Big Ten championship game, a potential matchup with Iowa awaits. The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 2. Grab some popcorn.

Rabinowitz: That cuts both ways. Yes, it's a difficult road, but if the Buckeyes win out, it'll be awfully difficult to keep them out of the College Football Playoff. As impressive as those Big Ten rivals have been, none of them should strike fear into Ohio State. The Buckeyes have more talent than all of them and likely will be favored every week, I'd think.

Kaufman: Agree. To make the playoff, the Buckeyes need some wins that can boost their résumé.  At this point, their best victory is ... Minnesota? Or Rutgers? Most of the popular computer rankings don't even have either in their top-50, but they're higher than the likes of Akron, Maryland or Tulsa. Really the fortunate part for Ohio State is that the schedule offered some breathing room in recent weeks, an opportunity to make some much-needed adjustments before facing these upper-shelf divisional foes. 

Rabinowitz: At the start of the season, it looked like OSU's next opponent — Indiana — might be the toughest they'd face in the second half of the season. Now the Hoosiers could be among the easiest. Not that IU couldn't challenge the Buckeyes. Indiana usually does. But imagine the odds you could have gotten in Vegas on both Michigan State and Michigan being undefeated this long. Penn State still poses the stiffest challenge if quarterback Sean Clifford is healthy.

Ohio State's Ryan Watts (16) and Kourt Williams tackle Maryland running back Peny Boone on Saturday. The Buckeyes' defense is improving after a shaky start.

Kaufman: I guess I held more skepticism with Indiana. It felt like the Hoosiers had caught lightning in a bottle during a pandemic-shortened season in 2020 and had questions at quarterback. While Michael Penix Jr. is no doubt talented, he hasn't proven to be durable enough over a 12-game slate. Each of his past three seasons ended prematurely due to injury, and he's now week to week with a shoulder injury. Tom Allen's program gave the Buckeyes a real game in Columbus last October due to Penix's arm. It might take a similar performance if he can recover in time.

Rabinowitz: We might get into this more next week, but if Penix can't play, IU has a capable backup in Jack Tuttle, who was Chris Olave's high school teammate. I want to delve a little more into Stroud's performance. I've been impressed by how unrattled he has been. Nothing seems to really faze him. Part of that comes from the comfort of having the players around him that he does. But he just seems like a confident guy. That's crucial for a quarterback.

Kaufman: Stroud has shown a calm demeanor from the onset. He handled a tough road environment in his first start at Minnesota, kept the Buckeyes close in the loss to Oregon and battled through shoulder pain against Tulsa. After resting his right throwing shoulder for a week, he's found his stride. I think Day's play-calling since his return has really helped out by giving him some shorter throws and allowing him to get the ball out of his hands quickly. According to Pro Football Focus, his average depth of target decreased to a season-low 7.9 yards at Rutgers. Then it shot up to a season-high 14.3 yards against Maryland as he connected on some of the deeper balls. The game plan gave Stroud a chance to ease back in. 

Defensive end Jack Sawyer and the Buckeyes have 19 sacks for the season, tied for 11th most in the FBS.

Rabinowitz: With the offense clicking, the key to the Buckeyes' season is how much their defense can improve. Certainly, some pieces are in place. The defensive line is putting more pressure on quarterbacks and has been mostly stout against the run. Senior Marcus Williamson has given a boost to the secondary after being seldom-used early. Freshman cornerback Denzel Burke has been a revelation. If Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown can get and stay healthy, Ohio State will be on track to making the needed improvement.

Ohio State football:Kerry Coombs receives game ball after Buckeyes beat Maryland

Kaufman: An off week will be important for other banged-up players such as defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who limped off the field in the third quarter on Saturday with an apparent leg injury. He didn't put weight on his right leg when he headed to the sideline. Day didn't go into details, but said it's an injury he's been dealing with. Garrett is a critical element of this defensive line and a reason the Buckeyes have gotten as much pressure as they have in recent weeks. They're up to 19 sacks for the season, tied for 11th most in the FBS despite a slow start. There's a youth movement on the roster for sure, but veterans will be needed to manage the formidable stretch run.

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