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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Buckeyes vs Northwestern - The Aftermath





Ten Things We Learned from Ohio State's 24-20 Win Over Northwestern
By Tony Gerdeman

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. 

FIVE THINGS:

THE PINATA COMES THROUGH

As fans effort to pinpoint what ails a Buckeye offense struggling to find a groove, J.T. Barrett has found himself in the crosshairs of a fanatical fringe with some going as far to suggest he should be benched. 
I'm not going to sit here and say Barrett has been outstanding this season – he hasn't – but the bigger problems with the passing game have been a spotty offensive line and a largely non-existent group of wideouts outside of some moments from Noah Brown. 
Yesterday the mob was out again on Twitter and elsewhere during a game in which Barrett ended up connecting on 21 of 32 passes (65%) for 223 yards with another 71 yards on the ground. Yeah, I guess 294 yards of total offense and no turnovers does suck. 
Maybe the knock on Barrett today will be that he failed to be responsible for a touchdown against Northwestern – the first time that's happened in a game he's started – but the reality is he was at his most valuable on a drive when Ohio State didn't score. 
Leading 24-20 and taking possession with 3:31 left in the game Barrett engineered a 10 play, 60-yard drive exhausting the clock to preserve the win. Highlights of the possession included his laser to Brown for 16 yards on a crucial 3rd and 8 and a 35-yard run on 3rd and 10 in which he smartly went down inbounds, driving the final nail in Northwestern's coffin.  
Yes, Barrett has a penchant for holding on to the ball too long, stares down a receiver from time to time and he's maybe not running with the same authority as we saw earlier in the season and no, he doesn't have a great deep ball nor does he have the confidence in his receivers to throw them open but he has connected on 65% of his throws over the last two weeks (49/75) with 468 yards and a touchdown against no interceptions and repeatedly steps up when Ohio State needs it most. 
If you're hellbent on pinning the passing game and/or offensive inconsistency squarely on Barrett, by all means do you, but from my seat the overwhelming opportunities for improvement fall on the offensive line and wideouts not named Noah Brown. 

BABY STEPS FOR THE OFFENSIVE LINE.. MAYBE

After surrendering the most TFL in a game (11) during the Urban Meyer era last week along with six sacks, the offensive line allowed just four TFL and one sack against the Wildcats. 
Northwestern came into the game ranked 4th in the B1G in sacks at 2.6 per game so to give up just one feels good on paper. That said, it seemed like the Wildcats rarely blitzed and therefore put little pressure on the line to adjust and communicate whereas Penn State was much more aggressive. 
On the ground, Ohio State rushed for 208 yards against a Wildcat defense giving up 132 per game so while the Buckeyes racked up 76 more yards than Northwestern's average yield, they still fell short of their own average of nearly 282 yards per game. 
J.T. Barrett was sacked just once against Northwestern after going down six times a week ago at Penn State.
Isaiah Prince looked a lot less like a turnstyle than we saw against Penn State but again it didn't seem Northwestern was all that aggressive in challenging him on the edge though they did boast the league's sack leader in Ifeadi Odenigbo. 
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan plugged up his own sieve a little but there is still much work to be done which started with Meyer installing a different blocking scheme including Brandon Bowen lining up as an extra tight end to help out Prince and Jamarco Jones.
How the schematic and personnel modifications evolve over the coming weeks will be interesting to watch because there's not yet enough evidence to remotely suggest the offensive line has solved its woes. 

A 'C' FOR THE D

With the offense struggling to find a groove much has been asked of Ohio State's defense and the collective unit has largely stepped up to the challenge. 
Yesterday offered a mixed bag as Malik Hooker went off for 14 stops and Raekwon McMillan had his first truly strong outing in a while with nine stops and a nice play in which he stepped into a passing lane to tip a Clayton Thorson throw leading to a gifted interception for Damon Arnette. 
Other positives included Marshon Lattimore continuing to be the cover guy on the team and Dre'Mont Jones having another solid outing with six stops along with a TFL. 
On the not-so-great side however, teams continue to find ways to scorch the secondary's lesser cover guys, Arnette and Damon Webb in particular. 
Arnette was repeatedly picked on by Thorson and Austin Carr making it a few weeks in a row where Arnette has ended up in the burn unit especially on 3rd down as opposing coordinators work to expose him in key situations. 
Up front the Buckeyes failed to get much pressure on Thorson with Tyquan Lewis registering the lone sack. The defense was so-so against the run as the Wildcats rushed it for 148 yards, or 27 more than OSU typically gives up and 11 more than Northwestern averaged coming in. 
The real issue was the combination of Thorson and Carr (8 rec, 158 yds) as part of a 258 yards passing day for the Wildcats against a Buckeye defense yielding just 158 passing yards entering the game. 
Yes, Ohio State has three studs in the secondary in Lattimore, Conley and Hooker but there's a legit drop off after that and teams are taking notice. 

IF THE SHOE FITZ

It is so easy for all of us, myself definitely included, to focus solely on what we perceive Ohio State to be doing or not doing well that we can overlook what the opponent brought to the table. 
To that point, Pat Fitzgerald and his staff deserve credit for coming in as nearly four touchdown underdogs and giving Ohio State all it could handle. 
Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall did a great job getting Carr in favorable coverage matchups through moving him around and bunching him up. The result, as noted, saw several plays in which Arnette, who is a young and inexperienced player, forced to try and stick with Carr and the result was a clinic. 
Austin Carr lit up Damon Arnette and the OSU secondary with eight catches for 158 yards.
I find it interesting that Meyer often talks in postgame pressers about how teams are taking Curtis Samuel away with some of the adjustments they make yet Fitzgerald and McCall somehow found a way for Thorson to target Carr 15 times despite everyone knowing he was far and away the best wide receiver on the field. 
Yes, Carr only had three catches in the 2nd half after tallying five for 66 yards in the 1st half but those three 2nd half grabs still went for 92 yards. 
Northwestern also did a great job controlling the clock in the 1st half and in employing some quicker passing plays in an effort to negate Ohio State's pass rush. 
Hat tip to Fitz and his staff for their efforts. 

SURVIVING IS THE NEW BLACK

Speaking of Meyer and postgame comments, he's grown increasingly frustrated with answering questions the last few weeks both with the media and apparently on his um, call-in show
This is surely a clunky way to describe it but he's been coming off as passive-aggressive defensive the last few weeks which I assume is out of frustration with his team and with what he probably thinks are unrealistic expectations shaping media queries.
The bottom line may be that while Meyer himself has created sky-high expectations through his success, his program may be finally feeling the loss of all those studs to the NFL. 
It's simply not as easy as we all want it to be to rebuild an offensive line with two new starting tackles and a true freshman new starter at left guard. The same can be said for a wide receiving corps that is certainly feeling the effects of Michael Thomas being gone along with a potential reality that guys such as Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and James Clark will never be what Meyer hoped they would be coming out of high school even if the group did step up a little bit yesterday in comparison to what they provided in State College. 
Hate it, refuse to accept it, or be patient to see if improvement takes place down the stretch but no matter which option each of us chooses, there are multiple reasons why this team has been in three straight one-possession games despite entering each as a double-digit favorite and Ohio State won't likely stomp each opponent the rest of the way by three touchdowns just be because that's our preference. 

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