While an open week might be tough for fans, the Saturday off is certainly well-timed for an Ohio State squad sitting at a perfect 6-0 following a physical win over Michigan State.
Unlike the players, 11W never takes a weekend off during the season and neither does the roundtable.
At the midpoint of the regular season slate, just about everything has gone right for Ohio State. The defense has experienced a massive turnaround, the offensive line has done its own 180 on run-blocking effectiveness and the skill players are blowing up. All things considered, which assistant coach has been Ohio State’s most valuable so far this season and why? Good luck splitting hairs on this one.
Kyle: The correct answer is probably Jeff Hafley, Greg Mattison, or some combination of the two, but I'm going to go with Mike Yurcich. It's easy to forget now, but Justin Fields didn't exactly light up the 'Shoe in the spring game, going a modest 4-13 through the air with 98 of his 131 passing yards coming on one play. Despite his star pedigree, he simply didn't look comfortable throwing the ball in Ryan Day's offense, and one Matthew Baldwin transferred shortly thereafter, Yurcich had no choice but to get Fields ready to take every single meaningful snap this fall. Additionally, Day's plate was now going to be full as both head coach and play-caller, leaving him with little time to truly mentor his star QB. The results have been staggering, as Fields is on pace to set the school's single-season QB rating record (187.5), ahead of Dwayne Haskins (174.08 in 2018), Troy Smith (162.7 in 2005), and Joe Germaine (151.9 in 1997). Sure, Fields may well be the most gifted signal-caller in Ohio State history, but Yurcich should get a ton of credit for refining that talent so quickly.
Johnny: Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley. Because I consider them to be a clonal being like a fungus or a stand of quaking aspen trees, this isn't a cop-out answer. Here's the thing; I really love guys like Brian Hartline, Larry Johnson, and Al Washington because they're proven commodities that have elevated the play of the units they're in charge of, and also because they didn't participate in any of Ryan Day's wedding festivities that I know of. But Mattison and Hafley's defensive scheme is a critical component that had been missing from some very talented Ohio State teams the past few seasons. The defensive turnaround has been remarkable, and it's largely because of the introduction of a coherent style of play that makes the Buckeyes a legitimate title contender.
David: I’m legally changing my son’s name to Jeff Hafley Regimbal, which I feel is a sufficient answer here.
Justin Fields finally threw his first interception of the season but he’s been spectacular completing 70% of his passes for 18 touchdowns with another 8 scores on the ground. Based on your expectations coming into the season, what has surprised you the most about Fields’ overall skill-set? What do you see as his biggest area of opportunity?
David: Ryan Day and the coaching staff made it sound like Fields was an enormous work in progress during fall camp, but it’s clear now he and the staff were just saying that to push their young quarterback.His ability to pick up the offense in just eight months has to be the biggest surprise. You’re not a consensus 5-star recruit without the physical tools. We knew he had talent.
Johnny: I'm actually not yet as high on Fields as a lot of other people are. Don't get me wrong, I think he's a great player who's even better given that he hasn't played much college football at all, but unlike Dwayne Haskins, Fields hasn't yet been asked to carry the team as the only functional part of the offense. For perspective's sake, think about this: after six games, Justin Fields has attempted 141 passes. Through six games in 2019, Dwayne Haskins had attempted 198 (and in his next two, he'd throw an additional 117).
So when I praise Fields for his really remarkable decision-making ability, or his tendency to extend plays in brilliant fashion, it's with the caveat that he hasn't yet had to display those talents in an extremely high pressure situation where he's forced to lead a comeback or repeatedly convert 3rd and longs. He'll likely have that chance later this month, and at the end of November.
Kyle: Much the same way Haskins developed as the season went on, there are still areas in which Fields can improve, despite the gaudy numbers, though most of these areas go unnoticed. Fields is still waiting for Day and the staff to dictate when and how to make adjustments at the line, specifically with pass protection. As time goes on, there will be moments when he can't just look to the sideline and get the right call with plenty of time before the play clock runs out, and he'll have to own that himself. This identification will also help him after the snap, as his command of the play around him should improve, leading to more throwaways and fewer sacks. But these are tiny items that few sophomores anywhere have mastered. Fields' decision-making has been nearly flawless, evidenced by his sole interception through 141 passing attempts. He rarely forces the ball, and when that trait is paired with the strength and athleticism that lets him escape pressure, he's been as dangerous as any QB ever seen in Columbus.
Thinking about the team overall, what is that one specific thing that worries you most when the time comes for Ohio State to face a truly elite opponent? Field goal kicking? The amount of sacks allowed by the o-line and Fields? Maybe the right tackle spot? Something else?
Kyle: The defense has been great because of its implementation. Mattison, Hafley, and co. have done a remarkable job to get all 11 guys in the right position and playing with the right technique and mentality. But ultimately, this has been a very vanilla system schematically. Not only is it fairly predictable, but the mentality of playing so much zone hasn't hurt them yet. Many coaches believe playing man-coverage is essentially making a bet on the defender to make a play, whereas playing zone is betting that the quarterback won't be able to properly read the defense and attack it properly. Thus far in the Buckeyes' season, they've yet to face a competent dropback passer, but at some point, they will. It might be Wisconsin's Jack Coan, Penn State's Sean Clifford, or perhaps it won't happen until facing a Heisman candidate in the playoff. But at some point, an opposing QB will start tearing apart the seams of this Cover 3 system and the silver bullets will be forced to respond in a way they've yet been forced to in 2019.
David: You nailed my two biggest concerns. Pass-protection wasn't great in the first quarter against Michigan State, but the o-line tightened it up afterward. Penn State, which leads the country in sacks this year, will be an enormous test.
But field goal kicking could be huge. What happens when Ohio State finally finds itself in a close game? Will Day have to be more aggressive in scoring situations because of the uncertainty there?
Johnny: Injuries and depth in the offensive line concerns me more than anything else. Keeping Justin Fields upright is important, but he doesn't seem to be particularly fragile (and he's also smart about taking hits). I'm more worried about their ability to sustain what up until now has been an incredibly effective running game. J.K. Dobbins has had a great season, and he's running with a mission right now, but he's not an Ezekiel Elliott or Eddie George. Without effective run blocking up front, things could complicate an offense that up until now has been humming along pretty damn nicely.
Who are the three most important Buckeyes on this roster not named Chase Young, Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins? Briefly support your picks.
Johnny: Jeff Okudah probably makes large parts of the secondary look a bit better than it actually is. It's amazing the run of elite defensive backs that Ohio State has had in recent years, and he's just kept grinding and getting increasingly more effective. Jordan Fuller is up there for similar reasons, and hopefully both of those guys can stay nice and healthy forever. And while there are a number of players on the starting offensive line who are impressing this year, I am an unabashed Thayer Munford fan. He rules.
Kyle: Malik Harrison and Pete Werner simply don't come off the field and for good reason. While the linebackers struggled last season, this year they've been the cornerstones of the much-improved defense. Harrison for his ability to not only find the football but to close on it quickly, and Werner for his versatility, playing box linebacker one play and dropping to free safety the next. As for the third, I'll say Josh Myers. The OL has been strong overall, but Myers has emerged as a physical, nasty center capable of moving a nose tackle or pancaking a linebacker in the second level. Given his responsibilities making calls across the line, his presence has become nearly invaluable for this team.
David: Jeff Okudah, because eventual top-10 draft picks don't just fall into your lap. It's a tough one between Binjimen Victor and Chris Olave because both have made the loss of three multi-year starters at the position seem like it wasn't that big of a deal. I'll lean toward Olave here. Then I'll go with Malik Harrison, who slides under the radar a bit with the other stars on the defense. The linebacker unit wouldn't be where it is today without him.
Looking at the national college landscape, who is your Heisman Trophy frontrunner through six games? Who would be the first Buckeye on your list and where would you slot him?
Kyle: If the ceremony were today, I'd include five finalists: Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, and Jonathan Taylor. While Fields has been excellent, the stats of the other three quarterbacks have been staggering. Hurts, in particular, has put up video game numbers thus far, posting an absurd 304 passing yards-per-game with a 75% completion percentage and a 14/2 TD-to-INT ratio. Oh, and he has nearly 500 yards rushing to go along with it. The only outlier here is Taylor, who is in the midst of a historic year, even by Wisconsin running back standards, averaging 7.23 yards-per-carry and the potential for a 2,000 yard, 25 TD season. Should the Buckeyes fall to the Badgers, with Taylor having a big game, his Heisman stock will continue to rise.
David: Tagovailoa gets my vote. Burrow's had an amazing year and Jonathan Taylor looks untouchable right now. Am I the only one feeling Oklahoma quarterback fatigue? For whatever reason I can't get on the Hurts train.
Fields has to be the Buckeye leader, right? I'd slot him third behind Tagovailoa and Burrow. Chase Young would be fifth, btw.
Johnny: It's Joe Burrow, my dudes! Tua or Hurts are also legit choices I guess, but Joey B has the best win on his resume and is outpacing his SEC-ish compatriots by a hair in most quarterbacking measurements. Also collectively as Ohio State fans we're all eventually going to have to sit down and digest the absolute insanity of his story, but you know... hopefully not after a loss to him in the playoffs.
Chase is fourth. It's really, really dumb that defensive players are largely ignored for the Heisman. I get why, but watch the damn games. Chase Young impacts literally every play that he's on the field for.