Nebraska has drifted back and forth between Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey. Sean Clifford has played poorly enough thus far that Penn State’s James Franklin is considering a midseason change to Will Levis. Noah Vedral remains Rutgers’ starter but has thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5) in four games.
To say Ohio State didn’t face a murderer’s row of quarterbacks in the first half of the regular season would be a massive understatement.
Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa would’ve been by far the most dangerous quarterback the Buckeyes had faced. Instead, due to the cancellation, Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. will earn that title on Saturday. The Hoosier signal-caller has completed 60.7 percent of his 150 passes for 1,070 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. He's thrown for more than 300 yards each of the past two weekends.
Yes, it’s a big game for Ohio State’s secondary, which remains young and largely untested. But it’s time for the defensive ends to show out, too.
“We've just got to make sure he's uncomfortable,” Tyler Friday said on Tuesday. “I think he's at his best when he's comfortable, he has his feet under him. He's also a bigger quarterback, so when he drops back and his ability to see over the line, we can't let him be comfortable back there. I think our whole goal is to just get him off his spot and get the ball out of his hands.”
Through three games, Ohio State’s defensive ends have four combined sacks.
One was Zach Harrison’s tackle of both Penn State’s quarterback and running back early in the second half of the Week 2 matchup. Javontae Jean-Baptiste had another when he was in the right place at the right time as Jonathon Cooper’s pressure forced Clifford to scramble his way. Freshman reserve Darrion Henry-Young got the only other full sack. Cooper and Harrison each account for 1/2 sacks, too.
None of the four sacks were guys going Full Chase Young around the edge. Friday came the closest, sacking Vedral after a pristine pass-rush move, but his play got negated with a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes need their edge rushers to turn it on and, as Friday said, make Penix uncomfortable. This is, unequivocally, their most important game yet.
“He's really playing mistake-free,” Ryan Day said when asked about Penix. “He's making a lot of plays. He keeps them on schedule. He's made some really big-time throws to tight spots. He's fearless.”
If the defensive ends get shut down, Penix can continue playing with that ultra-confident streak that has allowed Indiana to turn into a top-10 team. Getting him to second-guess things due to guys being in his face all night would alter the flow of the game.
Friday felt the Buckeyes did that to Vedral a week and a half ago, even though they sacked him just once and it was Tuf Borland who got home.
“We affected the way the quarterback threw the ball,” Friday said. “We can do that consistently, drive in and drive out, even though you may not get a sack, that helps our DBs. If we're in his face all the time, putting him off the spot, taking him out of his zone (or) his rhythm, that helps the whole defense. So it's always not about getting those big sacks, three-sack games. We have plenty of guys who can do that. We just like to play our role and help the whole defense.”
On Saturday, that role will mean more than at any point in the past month.
Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai have provided ample pressure up the middle. They’ll be counted on to do the same this weekend, and Johnson will look to the rotational defensive ends – Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Cooper, Jean-Baptiste and Friday – to join them.
“I would just say you've got to be ready when your number's called,” Friday said. “Coach (Larry Johnson is) doing everything he can to keep us fresh, and I think that's the main goal. As much as sometimes you may want to stay out there for four or five drives in a row, it might not be best for us down the road. We're also playing for games down the road as well, thinking long term.
“Right now, you've just got to make sure you're ready to go in when your number's called.”