FOOTBALL

CJ Stroud, Tommy Eichenberg lead Ohio State football superlatives for the regular season

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Here’s a look back at which players were the most valuable for Ohio State on offense, defense and special teams during the regular season.

Ohio State offense

1. C.J. Stroud

For a second straight season, Stroud was among the best quarterbacks in the nation and is likely to be a Heisman Trophy finalist once again. No one in the Football Bowl Subdivision had a higher passer rating than his 176.25. It was a level of performance that gave a massive lift to an offense that had a less dependable cast of playmakers. The Buckeyes were largely without their top receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and their backfield was banged up for most of the second half of the schedule, making Stroud an even more important distributor from the pocket. His precision was counted upon late in comebacks over Notre Dame and Penn State.

C.J. Stroud was selected as the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.

2. Marvin Harrison Jr.

Dealing with the absence of Smith-Njigba, no one stepped up as much as Harrison, who led the Buckeyes with 72 receptions for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns to become the program’s first finalist for the Biletnikoff Award in almost three decades. Harrison’s emergence as the clear No. 1 receiver has been the result of a varied skill set that includes impressive body control and route-running ability for his 6-foot-4 frame, allowing him to make a number of acrobatic catches, as well as a sure-handedness as a pass catcher. According to Pro Football Focus, he dropped only one pass on 108 targets.

3. Paris Johnson

After a season starting in the interior of Ohio State’s offensive line, Johnson returned to left tackle and provided critical blind-side protection for Stroud, one of the biggest reasons the Buckeyes gave up only eight sacks all season, tied for the fifth-fewest among 131 FBS teams. Only one of them was surrendered by Johnson, who didn’t allow any defender to drag Stroud to the turf until Michigan linebacker Eyabi Okie got past him in the waning minutes of last Saturday’s loss to the Wolverines.

Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg leads the Buckeyes with 112 tackles.

Ohio State defense

1. Tommy Eichenberg

The leap the Buckeyes took with their rush defense can be traced, in part, to one also made by Eichenberg, who went from a spot starter to becoming a consensus first-team All-Big Ten standout. As the middle linebacker in a rebuilt defense under Jim Knowles, Eichenberg swarmed ball carriers, leading the Buckeyes with 112 tackles, and could get nearly everywhere at the second level. The stretch run also saw him playing in pain as he dealt with injuries to both of his hands. Eichenberg had a consistent impact.

2. J.T. Tuimoloau 

In Ohio State’s signature win, Tuimoloau was at his best. He had two interceptions, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Penn State, an all-around dominance that helped the Buckeyes to leave Happy Valley unscathed. It was the sort of bullish performance that was reminiscent of the ones Chase Young strung together when he lined up on the defensive line a few years earlier. Tuimoloau totaled only four sacks and didn’t record one until October, but he brought consistent pressure as a pass rusher and set the edge in rush defense.

3. Ronnie Hickman

The improvement by the Buckeyes’ front seven meant that Hickman didn’t put up the same prolific tackling numbers as last season. The linebackers cleaned up a lot more this fall rather than allowing ball carries to reach the third level. But Hickman was still among the most impactful defenders as he moved from free safety to strong safety, a versatile piece of the defense as someone involved in defending the run and the pass. He intercepted a pass, broke up four and did not allow a touchdown in coverage.

Noah Ruggles has made 15 of 17 field goal attempts this season.

Special teams

1. Noah Ruggles

The reliability of Ruggles made a difference for the Buckeyes in a second straight season. After pushing a 39-yard field goal attempt wide left in the season opener against Notre Dame, he went on to make 16 of 17 attempts. The only miss came from a 53-yard try at Penn State that would have marked his career long. When drives stalled in the red zone, the Buckeyes banked on Ruggles’ short-to-mid-range accuracy to ensure they grabbed at least three points.

2. Jesse Mirco

The Australian punter was among the best in the Big Ten this season, averaging 45.6 yards per punt, a mark that trailed only Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer's average of 49 yards. Mirco often helped Ohio State pin opponents deep in their own territory as he nearly half of his punts (20 of 44) landed inside their 20-yard line.

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.

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