Baby Steps

Through the first seven games of the season, Ohio State has established that it’s not the most dominating team in college football history.  It sounds silly, but the expectations before the season started were so high that’s how the team was being measured.

Still, the Buckeyes now stand at 7-0, and last night they hung a pretty convincing win on Penn State, beating the Nittany Lions 38-10.  And if you are an Ohio State fan, you can be forgiven for looking for little signs that the team is improving.  I think the signs are there.

Offensively, the Buckeyes seem to be moving toward making J.T. Barrett the starting quarterback.  The more he plays, the better the offense performs.  Cardale Jones is a fine player with a terrific arm, but with Barrett at the helm the Buckeyes simply seem more fluid, more confident, and more multi-dimensional — and Barrett has an uncanny knack for finding the first-down marker and keeping drives alive.  With Barrett playing increasing minutes, the Buckeyes have now gone two games without drive-killing turnovers and are turning red zone appearances into touchdowns.  And last night, they did it all against a pretty good Penn State defense that features lots of talent.

But we are talking baby steps here, and there are still steps to be made on offense.  Last night, the Buckeyes racked up more than 300 yards on the ground, with both Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott posting more than 100 yards gained, but the passing game suffered.  If Ohio State hopes to compete with the elite, it can’t play with one hand tied behind its back.

On defense, the situation is more difficult to assess.  Joey Bosa and the defensive line did a good job of rushing the passer and physically dominating Christian Hackenberg, when the game was on the line they held Penn State short on a key fourth down, and they forced a turnover that put the game away — but there were lots of negatives.  The D was gashed on the ground and made Saquon Barkley look like the second coming of Jim Brown, showed some really poor tackling and pass defense techniques, and seemed to have scheme failures where Penn State runners were 10 yards downfield before a tackler appeared.  All of this should be concerning, even after a convincing win.  Penn State couldn’t capitalize on these weaknesses, but there are teams from The State Up North who will unless Ohio State gets those problems fixed.

With the “Black Out” and uniform dust-up behind us, let’s focus on some football and continuing improvement and see what this team can really do.

When The Offense Struggles . . . .

Sometimes, having an engagement that keeps you from watching a football game is a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve learned in connection with the Browns, and yesterday it applied to the Buckeyes.

So, I didn’t get to watch Ohio State’s offense sputter for the second straight game, with missed assignments and turnovers and struggling quarterbacks making bad decisions.  From the box score, It looks like the Buckeyes could run the the ball, but when you are throwing interceptions and bungling handoffs and getting hit with drive-killing penalties it’s hard to establish much offensive rhythm.  The offensive line — which was easily the most improved unit from start to finish — also has to strap it up and get better.

Some Ohio State fans are panicking, but for the most part they are the same people who were saying before the season that the Buckeyes were going to win every game this year 72-0.  The fact is that we are talking about college students here, and working new players into the lineup, and new coaches, and a truckload of hype that might cause a young person to think they can win just by showing up.  I think we can safely trust Urban Meyer and his staff — and offensive line coach Ed Warinner is one of the best in the business — to put the pieces together and push the right motivational buttons.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on the Buckeyes defense.  Yesterday, the held a high-powered Northern Illinois offense under 200 yards and stood tall every time the offense failed.  Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Joshua Perry were relentless, and the defensive backfield covered like a wet blanket.  And when the offense couldn’t score, the defense picked up the slack with Darron Lee’s clutch pick six that finally gave Buckeye Nation some breathing room.  Ohio State’s offense got the preseason props, but it is the defense that has been the most impressive unit so far.

Offense is fun to watch, but my old-school view is that defense wins championships. The season is young, but this D could be something special.