Ten Things We Learned from Ohio State's 24-20 Win Over Northwestern
COLUMBUS — The afternoon started out pretty well for the Buckeyes. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Northwestern midway through the first quarter and looked like they were going to put this game away early and coast for the first time in about a month.
Obviously, with a final score of 24-20, nobody was put away early, though it could be argued that there was still plenty of coasting.
Ohio State now moves to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten. Everything they want is still in front of them, but they're not good enough to look ahead even a little.
That's okay, though. "One game at a time" never did anyone wrong, and it can only help the Buckeyes at this point.
So what did we learn from Saturday's game? Let's take a look.
1. This is what Ohio State is.
After eight games, there is no more mystery at play. This is who Ohio State is. We know their strengths and we know their flaws. There is no switch that is going to be flipped. This is the offense and this is the defense. One looks troubled and the other is bending so far backward that the back of their head is scraping the ground.
The good news is that the Buckeyes were able to put some long, sustained drives together, and defensively, the Silver Bullets stiffened up in the red zone, allowing just two touchdowns in four visits.
At this point, however, we shouldn't expect an offense that is throwing the ball down the field or over the middle with confidence. I'm not sure J.T. Barrett has the receivers to even make that happen. After the game, Urban Meyer said he was happy with the balance and said that at most places, 431 yards of total offense would be perfectly acceptable. He did admit that Ohio State isn't most places, however.
Basically, don't suddenly expect Ohio State's passing game to start spitting out 300-yard games, and don't expect the Silver Bullets to turn into a blitz-happy monster. They are who they are at this point. Can the growth suddenly take off in November?
2. Luke Fickell and Greg Schiano have to find more ways to help Damon Webb and Damon Arnette.
Going into the game, I wrote and spoke about how this weekend was going to be a very bad matchup for Damon Webb and Damon Arnette with Northwestern receiver Austin Carr, though it didn't take a genius to make such proclamations. Carr finished with eight receptions for 158 yards.
After the game, Fickell said that they did a few different things to defend Carr that they hadn't really done much of this season. Those adjustments are probably why Carr didn't catch 15 passes for 280 yards.
For a slot receiver, Carr runs some very time-consuming routes, which means those routes become worthless with pressure from the pass rush. The Buckeyes didn't get that as much as they wanted, which is why quarterback Clayton Thorson was able to have the time to sit back and wait for Carr's routes.
Ohio State runs a man-to-man defense, but that kind of coverage is only as good as its vulnerabilities. Thorson rarely went after OSU's cornerbacks, instead choosing to stay with Carr and tight end Garrett Dickerson, who caught eight passes as well.
The Buckeyes need to provide Webb and Arnette with some alterations that make them a little less predictable and vulnerable on defense.
3. It's time to stop with the speed option.
I'm not one of those people who screams after every Ohio State failed speed option that the option hasn't worked all season long. It has worked at times this year, and it's worked pretty well. It hasn't worked in a while, however, and it's time to scrap it for now. It doesn't work and there is some tipping off that goes on because opponents have it defended perfectly. The option is supposed to stress a defense, not the offense, and every time the Buckeyes have run the speed option the last few weeks, they are the ones who are being stressed by it. Put it in the closet for a few weeks and then use it against Michigan.
4. The linebackers need to play better.
On first watch, I saw Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker getting pushed away from the running play several times. That's going to happen, but at some point plays need to be made. McMillan did pretty well against the passing game, tipping a pass that became an interception, and he was solid in coverage against tight end Garrett Dickerson. Still, this is a group that didn't have a single tackle for loss, and has just 2.5 TFLs over the last three weeks (all by Jerome Baker).
5. More misdirection is a good thing.
The counter end-around to Parris Campbell was an effective surprise that yielded 24 yards, but after seeing it once, the defense was able to recognize it and stop it. Too often this offense heads in exactly the same direction you think they're going, so the counters are a way of keeping defenses somewhat on their heels. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, teams are generally only fooled the first time.
The end around is an effective play against Michigan, provided it is blocked well, so don't be surprised to see Parris Campbell involved in the running game against the Wolverines.
6. This team is simply too passive.
Offensively and defensively, the passivity permeates. On defense, the Buckeyes were in the bending mood yesterday because they were trying to make sure they had all of their coverage bases...covered. On many snaps yesterday, the linebackers would show blitz only to spring into the secondary on the snaps. Luke Fickell wasn't happy with how much time Clayton Thorson had to throw the ball. Perhaps some added blitzes would have changed that.
Offensively, the Buckeyes called some deep passes, but threw just one I believe. After the game, K.J. Hill said that teams sit on the deep ball because they don't respect Ohio State's ability to throw it. The defense isn't going to respect a deep game that never materializes. You have to at least try to conjure something up. The unfortunate thing for Ohio State is that they probably need to throw some 50/50 balls, but the only guy on the roster who would be suited to catch them is Noah Brown and they don't really send him down the field.
7. The Plan Bs need to improve.
Ohio State found something they liked when they were constantly sending the tailback out in motion. It opened up the 8-yard passing game quite a bit, freeing up enough of the zone to allow for some passes. This was their Plan A. They kept going to this particular motion over and over again, but where was the Plan B? Where was the second "scheme" to find some openings?
I'll ask the same question on defense. They went into this game knowing they were going to have to help Damon Webb on Austin Carr. Carr still finished with 158 yards receiving. A better Plan B could have helped here.
In-game adjustments are one thing. Pre-game adjustments, however, could stand to be a bit more effective. Ohio State has scored 45 points in the last two weeks, which is the second-worst two-week total in Urban Meyer's tenure. (Second only to the 42 points scored against Illinois and Michigan State last season.)
8. For the first time under Urban Meyer players aren't improving.
This might be the most concerning item on any Ten Things we've ever done. To say that players aren't improving is not a blanket statement about all players, but it is clear that the Buckeyes are not where they thought they would be in terms of consistency and production. Yes, this is a young team, which means that growth is going to come at different speeds for different plays, but it should still be readily visible.
The lack of production at wide receiver is the most glaring evidence of this. They have had issues separating from defenders, but Meyer simply wants to see a few receivers separate from the packand be counted on. The lack of depth on the offensive line is a real concern as well. Jerome Baker has begun to level off. Damon Webb is not covering like the cornerback that he used to be.
I'm not going to say there are players who are regressing, but at Ohio State, that's how a lack of growth is measured. We're not privy to the film and the grades, and things are never as bad as they seem, but there is a level of expectation at Ohio State that isn't being met right now.
9. If you give J.T. Barrett time, he'll get it done.
The Ohio State offensive line protected much better this week, and it showed in the fourth quarter. Tied at 17-17, Barrett was protected well enough to allow him to lead the Buckeyes on a 63-yard touchdown drive. He went 2-for-2 on that drive for 43 yards and he carried it twice for 11 yards.
Then, with 3:31 remaining in the game, the Buckeyes were up 24-20 and in a position to run out the clock. On third-and-eight, Barrett dropped back and found Noah Brown for a 16-yard gain over the middle of the field. Three plays later Barrett went for 35 yards on the ground on third and 10. They went right behind Isaiah Prince and Billy Price on that play and it sealed the game.
If Barrett would have gotten this same level of production in Happy Valley, the Buckeyes would still be unbeaten. If the offensive line just gives Barrett time, he will get it done.
10. Perfection is impossible, stop trying to reach it.
When the offense was running the hurry up earlier in the season and it was working, J.T. Barrett credited the offensive staff for not always trying to come up with the perfect play, which is what they were trying to do so often in 2015. He said this year if there was a bad play in the bunch, they'd make up for it later due to volume.
Since then, however, Ohio State's hurry-up offense isn't all that fast paced. Instead, many times they wait to see the defensive alignment and then call the play. Last week I wrote that this played directly into Penn State's hands. That wasn't necessarily the case this week against Northwestern, but there is something to be said for putting a defense on their heels and wearing them down.
Offensive linemen love it when the defensive line is winded. Urban Meyer has said that J.T. Barrett is great in the up-tempo offense because he has complete command of the offense. If this is all true, where is the tempo? It comes and goes, but how often does it truly wear down a defense?
Instead, the OSU offensive staff is looking for the perfect play, and while they are doing so, the defense can catch its wind. And let's be honest, we've seen the offense this month, the hit-rate on perfect plays is less than stunning.
Stop striving for perfect and instead shoot to put the defense off balance. The Buckeyes might be shocked to see how much better the offense looks when the defense hasn't had a chance to collect itself.
And yes, these questions get asked of the Ohio State coaches, but the answers are always the same -- they do run tempo, but they also don't want to run it into a defense that is showing them something that combats them too well.
That's the other factor at play here. The Buckeye offense won't even attempt something if a defense is giving them a certain look. So then they go to something else -- like the speed option. That's also where the better Plan B's need to come in. When a play is being changed or called after a defensive alignment, it should generally be a successful play.
Some enterprising person should probably go look back at all of the games this year and chart what the "check with me" plays have done this season. Okay, I'll probably do it, but not today and not tomorrow. And probably not Tuesday.