Ohio State has come to the midway point of the Chase. Not unlike NASCAR and Indy Car, the Buckeyes are taking a pit stop during the seventh week of the season to regroup, make adjustments and keep inching along toward the finish line.
The 6-0 record and top-5 ranking are a surprise to no one. But none predicted the way Ohio State’s arrived at its bye week. Kenny Guiton’s heroics, the emergence of the receiving corps, stout defensive line play and an underwhelming secondary. Just like everyone predicted in August.
With back-to-back wins over ranked opponents, the Buckeyes are on pace to reach their first Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. They only have one ranked opponent remaining on the schedule: undefeated No. 18 Michigan. Ohio State’s strength of schedule checks in at 84th in the country.
The second half of the season will include scoreboard watching and plenty of blowouts in favor of the Buckeyes. In the final year of the BCS, it will be a mad dash to the finish. Multiple unbeatens could spell disaster for Ohio State. But the Rose Bowl isn’t a bad consolation, now is it?
Tom Herman and Ed Warinner’s hold on the offense has produced magnificent returns since their hiring. Braxton Miller is as dynamic as quarterbacks come, and Guiton happens to be a backup that could start for teams that are ranked in the top 25. The resurgence of the offensive line after years of languishing and a lack of production is perhaps the biggest development in the Meyer era.
But this season’s bright spot is the arrival of the wide receivers. Zach Smith spent an entire offseason preparing his unit to become more relevant in the gameplan. The past two seasons didn’t feature the pizazz Buckeye Nation is used to when watching the wideouts. Through the first half of 2013, that notion has changed.
Philly Brown and Devin Smith have distinguished themselves as legitimate playmakers, while Evan Spencer and Chris Fields’ production has soared. The quartet claims 17 of Ohio State’s 36 touchdowns. The passing game includes 19 total touchdowns, on pace to break the school record of 33 set in 1995.
Consistency has been the key variable. The wide receivers and tight ends show up in the box score each Saturday. The tight end position alone already eclipsed last season’s totals. Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett have combined for 14 receptions, 138 receiving yards and a touchdown.
The biggest surprise about the person getting the ball to the receivers is that it’s plural, as in persons. Miller’s three-game absence gave way to Guiton building on an already improbable legend. His six touchdown passes in a game – he set it in one half – and the 90-yard scoring strike to Smith at Cal are school records that should stand for a considerable amount of time. Now, after Miller’s unsteady performance at Northwestern, head coach Urban Meyer is once again talking about Guiton being inserted into the game for a few series.
But don’t discount Miller just yet. Yes, he had three turnovers at Northwestern, two of them costly. Every game isn’t a pretty picture, though. Mixed with Monets and Rembrandts is a Rorschach Test that can’t be deciphered. This is still the same quarterback that was the Big Ten’s offensive player of the week in his return from an MCL sprain. And on the game-winning drive Saturday, Miller was a perfect 4-of-4 passing.
He’s completing 65 percent of his passes for 609 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
There’s no bickering from fans when the running backs take a handoff. Few teams in the nation can afford to neglect the conference’s leading scorer and someone averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game. But that’s exactly what the Buckeyes did two weeks ago against Wisconsin, when Jordan Hall received a grand total of one carry.
The very next week, Dontre Wilson, considered to be Ohio State’s biggest playmaker, got fewer carries, as in zero. The sole reason was because Carlos Hyde gave the coaches no choice. In consecutive wins against ranked opponents, Hyde has amassed 295 total yards and three touchdowns.
Six running backs have at least 10 carries, and all six are averaging more than five yards per carry. As a team, the Buckeyes have rushed for nearly 1,700 yards in six games, an average of 281 yards. That’s good for the 12th-ranked rushing attack in the country.
Making everything move is the Big Ten’s top offensive line. Big things were expected of the unit that engineered so much during an undefeated season in 2012. Right tackle Taylor Decker was the only new starter, and Game 1 produced some worry. But after getting his first start out of the way – and avoiding Khalil Mack the rest of the season – Decker has been more than adequate.
Injuries kept the Group of Five from establishing the cohesion they and Meyer would have liked to see during the spring and fall camp. It hasn’t been an issue in the regular season, though. Ohio State’s quarterbacks have been sacked just eight times this season, generating one of the best per-game averages in the nation for the O-line.
As a whole, the offense is ranked 20th nationally, racking up almost 500 yards per game and scoring 47 points.
The summer months are spent debating all sorts of college football topics. For the Buckeyes, that centered on the defense. The unit was disappointing the first half of 2012 before developing into one of the top defenses in the country for the month of November.
During the offseason, there was chatter about four new starters on the defensive line, inexperienced linebackers and a stacked secondary. How quickly times change.
Six games into the 2012 campaign, all has been reversed. The D-line is one of the top units on the team and by far the best on the defense. Michael Bennett is playing at an All-Big Ten level, with Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington close behind. Fourth starter Joel Hale is proving to be more than just a leader, and true freshman Joey Bosa has been one of the stars of the show.
Ohio State ranks seventh against the run, limiting teams to 86 yards on the ground per game. The highlight was holding Wisconsin, one of the top rushing offenses in the country, nearly 250 yards below its average.
Whether it’s the edge or interior, the Buckeyes seem to stop all comers.
Spence has 23 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks; Bosa has 16 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, and fumble recovery for a touchdown; and Bennett has 12 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
The first couple games saw linebacker play that left many nervous. But the inexperienced duo of the group – Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry – has since buttoned things up. Grant is the second leading tackler on the team behind do-it-all linebacker Ryan Shazier. Grant has 35 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Grant and Perry have been impressive in both Big Ten games.
Shazier’s play is at a level not seen in Columbus since James Laurinaitis roamed from sideline to sideline. He’s tops on the team in total tackles, tackles for loss, quarterback hurries and tied for first in forced fumbles.
However, as good as the front seven has been, the secondary’s play has been almost that bad. Their D or F pulls down an otherwise solid defensive grade. Bradley Roby, Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett have played countless games together. Each has been a multi-year starter for the Buckeyes. Two other experienced players – Pittsburgh Brown and Doran Grant – also have expanded roles this season.
Still, the secondary has been torched in three of six games this season. The red light has been illuminated the past two weekends, when Wisconsin and Northwestern seemed to gain yards through the air with little effort. Meyer deemed the pass defense “alarming” earlier this week.
Roby’s lack of production has been most glaring. Not only is the defensive backfield not the strength many thought it’d be, but the unit’s best player –Roby, an All-American – has struggled mightily.
Now, they have to deal with Bryant’s season-ending injury. Brown had a forgettable first game in place of Bryant, with increased playing time for Vonn Bell a growing possibility.
The defense, and more accurately the secondary, is at a crossroads. Ohio State ranks 76th in the country defending the pass.
National Signing Day brought good news for the Buckeyes’ coaches and fans. But there was a little dose of the bad stuff. Punting commit Johnny Townsend opted not to sign with Ohio State after his homestate Florida Gators swooped in with a late offer.
It was a blow to the special teams, especially since the Buckeyes didn’t have a scholarship punter. During spring practice, placekicker Drew Basil pulled double duty. But in the summer, Cameron Johnston, an Australian YouTube sensation, committed to Ohio State.
It took five games before an opponent got a punt return yard on him, and the Buckeyes rank 17th in net punting and punt return defense. The only return was a three-yarder by Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis.
The lone blemish on Johnston’s season is a failed fake punt last Saturday. He’s put 14 of his 21 punts inside the 20 and 12 have been fair caught. He’s averaging 40 yards per boot with a long of 61.
Meanwhile, Basil has converted all five of his field goal attempts. His longest was a 45-yarder. Twelve of his 45 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.
The kick return unit ranks 35th, averaging 23.4 yards per return, while the punt team is 22nd with a touchdown on a block at Northwestern.