The Miami Redhawks will have their hands full on Saturday when they take on the #6 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus. We spoke with Matt Tamaniniof Land-Grant Holy Land, the OSU blog on SB Nation, to get a better sense of where the Buckeyes are at right now and what the expectations for Saturday will be.
Hustle Belt: Ohio State has looked awfully impressive in the first few weeks of the season. Are there any noticeable differences in the team since Ryan Day took over?
Matt Tamanini: There are certainly differences in the program, the recruiting, and Day’s personality, but there are likely far more things that have remained the same. One of the attractive things about Day as a candidate, according to OSU athletic director Gene Smith, was that he would be able to continue to successes that Ohio State had under Urban Meyer. So, much is the same, but the biggest differences start with the coaches that Day brought in, primarily on defense.
In 2018, the OSU defense (outside of the alway stellar line) was subpar by many Big Ten teams’ standards, let alone OSU’s. Thanks to some nepotistic hires by Meyer, coaches were in positions far longer than their performance should have allowed. But, with a completely new defensive staff — save one of the best d-line coaches in America, Larry Johnson — the players aren’t forced into schemes and positions that don’t fit their skills.
Instead, the coaches are using NFL schemes to combat college offenses and are allowing defenders to play more freely without having to diagnose complex algebraic equations on every snap.
HB: Justin Fields has been on an absolute tear with 13 total touchdowns in three weeks. What do you think is Field’s greatest strength as a quarterback at this point?
MT: Surprisingly enough, it’s his poise. Ohio State fans knew that Fields was a great athlete, and they had incredibly high expectations for him. While his start has been very strong, it hasn’t been because of his athleticism or his ability to run. He has done it with patience in the pocket and incredibly efficient passing. Last Saturday against Indiana, Fields suffered through a bout of inaccuracy in the first quarter or so, but apparently made the physical adjustment to correct it for the rest of the game.
He has a fantastic arm, much better than I anticipated. He routinely makes pin-point throws from the opposite hash to the sideline, and even though he showed his running ability with a 51-yard TD on his first run as a Buckeye, he hasn’t rushed much, presumably because the quarterback depth at Ohio State is as bad as its potentially ever been.
But, despite the physical skills, his best trait has been his ability to make the right decision and to stay calm in the pocket. He had an incomplete sideways lateral that turned into a fumble in the season-opener against Florida Atlantic, but beyond that, he hasn’t had a turnover yet; which is pretty impressive for a player starting at QB for the first time and in a system that he’s only been in since January.
HB: OSU seems to never lack talented running backs and J.K. Dobbins looks like another good one with 425 rushing yards and four scores to go with four receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown this season. How important is the running game to the success of the offense?
MT: It is the most important thing for this team, at least offensively. Last season, the Buckeyes had the most dynamic and talented passer in the history of the Ohio State program in Dwayne Haskins, but for a mishmash of issues, they couldn’t run the ball efficiently, and especially couldn’t run the ball in the redone. This season, because of what appears to be an improved offensive line and Dobbins looking to redeem himself off of a season that he declared a disappointment (despite running for over 1,000 yards), they have an incredibly balanced offensive attack.
Granted, having a running threat in the backfield will always open up more options for the running backs, but OSU hasn’t used Fields as a runner much yet. Instead, Dobbins is running downhill more than he ever did in 2018, and Master Teague III has emerged as a really strong second option. Fields is a very talented passer, as I mentioned before, but he’s know Haskins, and he knows it. For this team to do what they want, they will need a consistent running game, and that starts with Dobbins.
HB: Defensively speaking, Chase Young has been a dominant pass rusher this season with five sacks already. What does he do well to make the plays that he has, and are there any other Buckeye defenders that have impressed you this season?
MT: Chase Young is a physical freak. He is tall, he is muscular, and he is fast. He is not as technically proficient as the Bosa brothers were, but they weren’t as athletically gifted as Young is either. When you watch him on the outside, what makes him so dangerous is that he has no wasted movement on his rush. Because of his speed, he is often able to a step on the blocker, and use his body to create leverage to either blow by the lineman, or to get off the block. But, when you put two (or more) guys on him, that opens up lanes for the rest of the very talented line.
The two other players that have really shown well in the early goings at cornerback Jeff Okudah and linebacker Malik Harrison. Okudah has had to wait his time in the OSU secondary, and contribute primarily on special teams, but everyone always knew that he was as talented as any of OSU’s recent DBs, and he’s showing it this year. The linebackers for the Buckeyes were terrible in 2018, but thanks to a simplified scheme players like Harrison and Baron Browning are getting back to the aggressive style of Silver Bullet football that OSU fans love.
HB: What do the Buckeyes hope to accomplish Saturday against Miami (OH)? Who do they want to see get some playing time before the grind of the Big Ten season?
MT: Assuming that there isn’t a massive upset of massive proportions, I would think that the Buckeyes top priority is to not get anyone hurt. With a primetime, road matchup with Nebraska a week later, I’d imagine that Ryan Day would be more judicious with getting his starters out than he has been in other games this season. So, I would guess that Chris Chugunov and Gunnar Hoak will get some snaps each at quarterback.
The QB depth for Ohio State is miserable. Chugunov and Hoak are both two-year graduate transfers (Chugs in his second year, Hoak in his first) from West Virginia and Kentucky respectively. While Chugunov has been in the system for over a year, Hoak only has a few months under his belt. Coaches have noted that it’s hard to prep backup QBs in season, because so much time is focused on getting the starter ready for the game. So, I could see them each getting substantive series where they are asked to do more than just hand the ball off and don’t screw up, because if anything happens to Justin Fields, the Buckeyes are going to need to have someone that they at least don’t dread having to put in.
I think you will also see some young guys along the offensive line, Nicholas Petit-Frere, Harry Miller, and Matthew Jones specifically. The o-line has played well thus far, but the depth is young, so getting those three freshmen some time will be good for the longterm health of the unit.
Finally, I would think that on defense, the coaches would like to get Brendon White, Jansen Wint, Isaiah Pryor, and Amir Riep some time. Because of the changes that the new defensive staff has brought to Columbus, the Buckeyes are playing fewer defensive backs on the field at a time than they have in the recent past, and they aren’t rotating as much as they did under Kerry Coombs. So, that means that there are less opportunities for the backups to get game reps.
HB: What is the ceiling of this team going forward? What are realistic goals for Day’s first season at the helm?
MT: I think the ceiling is a national title. They absolutely have the talent to do that. But, I wouldn’t predict that, despite thinking that Day provides very little — if any — drop off from Urban Meyer. As cliche as it sounds, the goals at Ohio State are always the same, national title, Big Ten title, beat Michigan (not necessarily in that order). Like I said, I think the first of those three is a possibility, but unless you’re Clemson or Alabama, whether or not it’s realistic is debatable. However, the other two are not only realistic, but, at this point, I would be surprised if they weren’t likely.