Eleven Warriors Roundtable: Gut Check

By Chris Lauderback on November 10, 2017 at 10:10 am
Ohio State's defense is looking for a bounceback performance following the debacle in Kinnick Stadium.

Though the stink from last weekend hasn't washed off easily, the Buckeyes must turn the page in time for a crucial B1G East battle with Mark Dantonio's Michigan State Spartans. 

Despite being a 16-point favorite, most expect a close game and as you've heard all week, the home team hasn't won this matchup since 2007.

Will Ohio State bounce back? Can the linebacker play improve this late in the season? 

For answers to those questions and more, staffers Kyle Jones, Andrew Lind and David Wertheim take their seats in the latest installment of the 11W roundtable. 

Nine games in, the player rotations are pretty much set. Which player might be getting too many snaps and who should pick up that slack? If unrelated, who would like to see get more playing time whether it be because you believe he’s better than the incumbent, or you have an eye on next year?

Kyle: Austin Mack has come on lately, showing a confidence in his ability to go snatch a pass away from his body in a manner we haven't seen since Mike Thomas left for New Orleans. At the same time, Bin Victor dropped an open touchdown pass last week while splitting time with Mack at the 'X' receiver spot. Yet although Mack played the game of his life against Penn State, he was hardly targeted in the loss to Iowa, and his presence could be the difference on an offense that may be relied on even more heavily down the stretch. 

Andrew: Yesterday, Urban Meyer mentioned freshman cornerback Jeffrey Okudah in the same breath as first-round NFL Draft pick Gareon Conley. That's high praise for someone who has only seen time on special teams in recent weeks.

That's not to say Okudah isn't on that level, because I think he'll be better than the current Oakland Raider ever was in Columbus. My statement is more so asking why Okudah isn't playing more if that's the case.

Ohio State was expecting a lot more out of junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield, and he's been subpar in coverage and regularly misses tackles. He's improved a little bit in recent weeks, but we're certainly not seeing a one-and-done year from him.

David: I'm super excited for next year's offense led by Dwayne Haskins, J.K. Dobbins, Binjimen Victor, K.J. Hill, and Austin Mack. That will be a fun unit to watch, and all seem to be making strides this year, especially Dobbins. When a running back is averaging about 8 yards per carry, you need to get him the ball. Six carries in a game is unacceptable. He needs the ball more. Also, I'd like to see more of Jeffrey Okudah, as Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield have not been nearly as advertised thus far.

Chris Worley's struggles biting too hard in playaction and struggling to stay with pass catchers was exposed at Iowa.

Urban Meyer didn’t offer much when questioned about Bill Davis in year one as linebackers coach but the group looked lost in coverage against Iowa which was even worse than what we saw versus Oklahoma. Is linebacker the most concerning position group? Why or why not? Is the issue talent, coaching, or both?

David: Yes. They've been horrible all year long starting in the Oklahoma game. I think the issue is for sure coaching. We saw last year- with the same players, switching Dante Booker for Raekwon McMillan – a unit that was very strong under the leadership of Luke Fickell. Baker, Worley, and Booker were all high four-star recruits and played well last year. Talent isn't the issue. There's a reason Billy Davis has been scrutinized after both the Oklahoma game and now the Iowa loss. He is the problem.

Andrew: The difference between this unit under Davis compared to former defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is astonishing, and I'm not sure we should be surprised. Davis flamed out in the National Football League, and it seems to have been for good reason.

The Buckeyes were ripped apart by the Hawkeyes' tight ends to the tune of nine catches for 125 yards and four touchdowns. That's unacceptable, especially with a group of linebackers like Chris Worley, Jerome Baker, Dante Booker, Tuf Borland and Malik Harrison.

The talent is there, the execution is not. And that falls squarely upon Davis' shoulders.

Kyle: Yes, by far. The group's inability to quickly recognize their responsibilities in pass coverage when an offense shows even the slightest hint of run-action is beyond concerning and has become a targetable weakness. While this unit wasn't expected to have much depth, five players have received considerable playing time at linebacker this season, with none having consistently stood out in this department. Offenses may be hesitant to throw anywhere near Denzel Ward, but opposing tight ends must be licking their chops in advance of playing a group of linebackers that hasn't shown any improvement in this area between weeks 2 and 9, which is a clear indictment of the coaching they've received.   

Many found it interesting Meyer’s postgame presser lasted three minutes and no coordinators, most notably Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson were no shows, leaving Billy Price and Tyquan Lewis to explain the debacle. Are people making too much of this, or does Meyer’s program currently have an accountability issue?

Kyle: I'd chalk the press conference up to Meyer's state of shock. Given how much time he spends with the offensive staff during the week, his defense's utter lack of preparation had to have surprised him as much as anyone. But the accountability issue will truly be tested in the coming weeks. If his team doesn't respond in a positive manner over the final month of the season, and changes are not made to his staff, then yes, it might be fair to say he's not holding those in the program up to a high enough standard. But based on the moves he's made in the past, replacing Everett Withers with Chris Ash, Ed Warinner with Kevin Wilson, and Time Beck with Ryan Day, he's earned the benefit of the doubt so far in his time at Ohio State.

David: There's definitely an accountability issue. J.T. Barrett should have to speak after throwing four interceptions and making Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson look like Charles Woodson. Barrett is not a "kid" anymore. He's almost 23 years old, a three-time captain, and the starting quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Under no circumstances should he not have to speak. If Meyer isn't going to let his coordinators speak, then he needs to do it himself. When you go on the road as the No. 6 team in the country and lose by 30 to a team that came into the game 5-3, the fans and media need answers.

Andrew: Honestly, I think it speaks more about the Price and Lewis and their role as leaders on the team. Meyer has never been one to say much after a loss, and Schiano and Wilson had no answers for Iowa's offensive attack or suffocating defense. What makes anyone think they were going to have well-reasoned answers for what happened on Saturday night?

I was a little bit surprised Barrett and Worley weren't made available, simply because they've been viewed since the Fiesta Bowl loss as the leaders of their respective units. However, I also understand Meyer shielding Barrett from the criticism that was sure to come from certain media outlets who put so much emphasis on the Penn State game, forgetting that every win doesn't come easy.

J.K. Dobbins is averaging 7.7 yards per carry on 13.2 carries per game.

The common defense of too many QB runs in big games from coaches and x-and-o guys is Ohio State’s read option offense really leaves it up to the defense to determine who actually carries the ball. That, in a vacuum makes sense but I would argue the offense needs more diversity versus accepting the quarterback getting the bulk of the carries. What are your thoughts on Ohio State’s distribution of carries, the strategy around it, and what could be done to get J.K. Dobbins more touches?

Andrew: There were many times last weekend when Iowa forced Barrett to hold onto the ball instead of handing it off, which is exactly what led to the bulk of his carries. And when the team got down and it was clear the only way to get back into the game was to throw the ball, Dobbins and Mike Weber became non-factors.

Now I'm not an Xs and Os guy, but it seems to me as if the Buckeyes need to go into certain down-and-distance situations with the sole purpose of handing the ball off out of the read option. The running backs are talented enough to make one defender miss — and if that happens, big plays will follow.

Meyer has talked about a situation where both backs are on the field at the same time, yet we haven't seen it happen. The threat of the option going to either side of the field might open things up, as well.

Kyle: I'd argue that J.T. Barrett running the ball was the best part of Ohio State's entire performance last week in Iowa, but I know no one wants to hear it. Yes, Dobbins had 51 yards on six carries, but take away his 35-yard scamper early in the game and Barrett's 4.5 ypc doesn't look so bad, especially on third and short. But I hear your point, and the Buckeyes need to find ways to get an explosive runner like him the ball more. One way is to reincorporate the triple-option game that allows Barrett to run or throw to the edges, giving K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell the chance to scorch a defense for committing so hard to the inside run. But the most effective way may be to get the ball to Dobbins on the edges with sweeps and tosses, flipping the roles as they did on the "bash" concept that sprung Dobbins for that long run against the Hawkeyes. If Michigan State employs that same tactic we saw from Iowa, dictating the flow of the option game, then it may be time to get him the ball outside the tackles.

David: J.K. Dobbins needs the ball. Plain and simple. He's averaging 7.7 yards per carry (as opposed to Mike Weber's 4.6 and J.T. Barrett's 5.1). He is electric in the open field. I don't really care how it's done, but Dobbins needs the ball in his hands. If the defense knows that J.T. Barrett is going to carry the ball- which seems to happen in almost every big game under Urban Meyer- it is pretty easy to stop Ohio State's offense, especially if Barrett isn't connecting on the pass, like we saw last week.

As a staff, we have kicked around the idea Urban is mellowing out and transitioning to more of a CEO type for at least the last year, and thus he’s still finding his way through that transition. Do you believe Meyer is shifting or has recently shifted how he approaches the job of Head Coach? If so, how and to what degree has this been a success? Where has it failed?

David: I still think Meyer has ultimate control that he is unwilling to totally eliminate. For instance, once again in the Oklahoma game we saw the "J.T. left, J.T. right" strategy that Meyer tends to employ when he feels overmatched in big games. However, in the Penn State game, we saw wrinkles that had yet to be seen and an out-of-his-mind J.T. Barrett who was perfect in the fourth quarter. Meyer has always been- for lack of a better word- a control freak, but when he is willing to delegate responsibility to his coordinators, like he did in 2014 and again in the Penn State game, good things will happen.

Kyle: It would certainly appear that way from the outside, as he's filled the coaching staff with proven commodities. He always delegated responsibility to the defensive staff, but seems to be more hands-off with the offense than years past, quickly crediting Wilson and Day for specific decisions and play-calls after games. But to judge his success, one can only look at the win-loss record. Just because he's embraced a new style doesn't necessarily mean it's better, and ultimately, his job comes down to one thing: winning. If he can't do that then he might want to think about getting his hands dirty, even if it means embracing his roots as a former defensive back.

Andrew: Meyer's biggest problem is from Sunday through Friday, he delegates his responsibilities to his assistant coaches. But come game day, he micromanages everything. Most notably play-calling.

Instead of simply allowing offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson — and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day — to run their offense as he brought them in to do, he influences them too much in tight games and criticial situations. The offense gets ultra conservative and predictable as a result.

He's half-in, half-out in those situations, and it hurts the team. He either needs to admit he's more involved in the play-calling than he'll say publicly, or he needs to be more hands off and let his assistants do their job.


The Fighting Dantonios come to town this week sporting the typical lunch-pail type of team we’ve seen give Meyer’s squads trouble in the past. What’s the most concerning facet of Sparty’s game causing you heartburn?

Andrew: After watching Iowa's Nate Stanley pick apart Ohio State's back seven, I shudder in fear thinking about what Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke could do to the Buckeyes this weekend. He's attempted 50-plus passes three times this season, including the Spartans' two most recent wins.

In those games against Northwestern and Penn State, Lewerke combined for 845 yards and six touchdowns compared to zero interceptions. If Ohio State fails to cover the tight end or the safeties forgot who is responsible for which route runner, the Buckeyes' defense could be in for another long afternoon.

Kyle: Iowa executed a perfect Michigan State game plan against the Buckeyes just a handful of days ago, limiting their ability to move the ball offensively while tying them in knots with a physical and methodical pro-style offense. The good news is Ohio State knows where its weaknesses lie (as we've discussed at great lengths). The bad news is they only have a few days to fix them. While I expect the defense to be better (it's hard to be worse), I'd be shocked to see the Buckeyes light up the scoreboard, given Sparty's proven ability to slow down Meyer's offenses in the past.

David: Michigan State has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. This is one of those scenarios where Ohio State is more talented, with a winning almost sealing the deal for a Big Ten Championship Game appearance, but having to fight through Michigan State before. We saw this two years ago when Ohio State didn't give Zeke the ball and lost on a last second field goal. Michigan State came into this season with extremely low expectations. Now, if they win this game and don't choke against Maryland/Rutgers the next two weeks, they are back in Indianapolis for the second time in three years looking to knock off Wisconsin.

Ohio State enters this week’s game as a 16-point favorite over Sparty. Will they cover? Give us your final score and player to watch.

Kyle: No chance they cover, but I do think the defense bounces back with big performances from the talented line. Penn State held Michigan State to just 74 rushing yards on 24 carries last weekend, continuing a trend we've seen from the Spartans since conference play began, so I expect to see Larry Johnson's crew get back to creating negative plays in the run game and keeping the Spartans in third-and-long all afternoon. Jalyn Holmes, specifically, played poorly at weak-side end against Iowa, and I'll be looking for the senior captain to bounce back with some big plays. Expect yet another ugly slugfest in what has become the signature rivalry of Meyer's tenure in Columbus, with the Buckeyes bouncing back to win a close one 24-20.

David: No. They do not cover. In fact, I think Michigan State wins this game 23-20. A player to watch is J.T. Barrett. Can the fifth-year senior step up and be the leader we have all thought him to be? Or will he sulk in a little hole running for 3 yards left and right while Urban Meyer looks on from the sidelines perplexed? My brain says the former, but my gut says the latter.

Andrew: Ohio State is admittedly pissed off and embarrassed by last weekend's loss, and that coupled with a must-win game against Michigan State — a team that continues to be a thorn in the side — has got me thinking this isn't going to be as close as most assume. The Buckeyes are 6-1 in games following a loss under Meyer, with a 29.2 points per game differential in the wins, and I anticipate he'll have his team focused from kickoff.

If that happens, Ohio State will be in the driver's seat for a berth in the Big Ten title game. If the Buckeyes can knock off Michigan and then (likely) Wisconsin, Meyer will have his second conference championship and yet another appearance in a New Year's Six bowl game — at the least. And, to me, that's another successful season.

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