Ohio State improves to 7-1, but issues up front are obvious … Buckeyes struggle on offense while pulling out 24-20 victory … Barrett would be fine if he had more protection.
COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer always has pointed out that what he wants at Ohio State is an offensive line-driven program. He takes great pride in not being a typical spread-offense team, where short passes take the place of a potent ground game.
He’s looking to whip opponents with a manly attack, not finesse, and he had that in his first four years as coach here as Ezekiel Elliott and Carlos Hyde ran behind maulers up front.
That’s not happening now.
The Buckeyes are as soft as dryer lint, as docile as a puppy, as scary as a Girl Scout troop.
They managed to hang on for a 24-20 win over Northwestern here Saturday, a victory that was sealed only when they pieced together three first downs on the final possession of the game.
Their playoff hopes survived, at least for another week. But we’re eight games into the season, and we keep waiting for all that youth to make a major leap forward, especially with Meyer at the wheel. But maybe this is as good as it’s going to get.
Yes, Northwestern is improving and had won its last three outings. But it’s Northwestern. The Buckeyes had prevailed in 29 of the previous 30 games in the series, including every meeting at home since 1971.
Fans wouldn’t be booing during a 17-all tie early in the fourth quarter if it were an opponent worthy of respect. But that’s what they were doing when the Buckeyes were stopped for a one-yard loss on a third-and-6 option play from the Wildcat 36-yard line. They punted after that for a touchback, triggering even more boos.
Ohio State isn’t hard to figure out. Nothing complex is going on here. If the Buckeyes were a psychiatric patient, their issues could be diagnosed by Lucy for five cents.
They can’t block anybody.
J.T. Barrett is accurate enough. But the pocket seems to close around him far too quickly. The receivers, while having plenty of straight-line speed, can’t consistently get open. Perhaps they would if Barrett had more time. But some of that pressure comes from the wideouts being covered too long.
The Buckeyes resorted to a horizontal passing game instead of going vertical. Running backs Curtis Samuel (seven) and Mike Weber (three) combined for 10 catches, while the receivers hauled in nine.
As much as fans like to blister the conservative play-calling, there’s not an offensive coordinator on any level who could do anything with a line that isn’t creating holes or allowing its quarterback to get comfortable.
After the debacle last week at Penn State, where the Buckeyes allowed six sacks and sputtered offensively, I wanted to see what would happen in the trenches. And the results weren’t promising.
I noticed one early adjustment. Sophomore right tackle Isaiah Prince, who was a disaster against Penn State, was given help at times with an extra lineman on his outside. Branden Bowen, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound freshman, wore No. 44 instead of his usual 76 (because he’d be an eligible receiver) and was stationed there to keep Prince from being left on an island.
The move made sense. Prince allowed 14 quarterback pressures last week. One advanced-analytics website said it was the most ever given up by a player in a single game since it began charting that stat several years ago.
But the trade-off, of course, is there’s one less receiver in the secondary.
That never would have happened previously under Meyer.
Then again, they never would have been in a dogfight with Northwestern, either.
I had been saying the Buckeyes have a championship-caliber defense. But after watching them give up 406 yards and 21 first downs to a team that lost to Illinois State, label me skeptical.
Wherefore art thou, Raekwon McMillan? The preseason All-American isn’t living up to the hype and hasn’t been the run-stuffer they need at middle linebacker.
He averaged nine tackles per game last year, but is picking up only six per outing this season.
The 6-2, 243-pound junior seems to be getting caught up in all clutter between the tackles, perhaps because the almost-all-new defensive line isn’t eating up blockers like last year’s front four.
I remember interviewing former New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who had come back to watch the Buckeyes in 2005. Asked about A.J. Hawk, who created mayhem everywhere, Vrabel had a telling response. He acknowledged Hawk’s pro potential while adding, “But he’s going to have to learn to get off blocks.”
I was reminded of that as I watched the outside linebacker become a middling player with the Green Bay Packers, often getting swept aside by a charging offense.
That’s what’s happening to McMillan, a former five-star recruit from Georgia. He certainly hasn’t been producing impact plays. He went into the game with 2.5 tackles for loss with no sacks and zero interceptions.
He did deflect a pass against Northwestern, which Damon Arnette intercepted.
He’s supposed to be a surefire NFL first-rounder after this season. I’m not saying he’s been a bust, but he reminds me more of middle linebacker Curtis Grant, a rare five-star out-of-state recruit for previous Ohio State coach Jim Tressel who didn’t meet expectations until his senior year in 2014.
Despite his high tackle totals last season, McMillan had only 4.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Not to pin the rough day solely on him. And, to be fair, the defense certainly isn’t as porous as the outfit Meyer was saddled with his first two years (before Chris Ash became the defensive coordinator). But the unit also isn’t in the same class as the 2014-15 bunch.
Scratching for victories this season probably is something we all should have seen coming. The Buckeyes sent 14 players to the NFL from last year’s team, and a talent exodus of that magnitude is unprecedented.
They had 12 players drafted in the first four rounds, which set a record.
What’s happening is the same thing that occurs in college basketball. Kentucky and Duke are relying mostly on five-star freshmen and sophomores, and that can carry them a long way — maybe even to a national title.
But the more likely scenario is that they run into juniors, seniors and fifth-year players along the way like a Wisconsin has.
And sometimes youth, no matter how gifted, is just no match for grown men.