The first half of Ohio State’s 2021 season began with the Buckeyes looking vulnerable in many areas and ended with the Buckeyes showing promise in all areas.
After Ohio State suffered a 35-28 loss to Oregon in its second game of the season, plenty of people were ready to write off the Buckeyes as championship contenders. After winning their next four games by an average of more than 40 points, however, the Buckeyes are once again viewed as one of college football’s top five teams and a team that remains very much alive in the College Football Playoff race.
Ohio State showed improvement in every phase of the game over the course of its first six games, and there’s been a lot to like about what we’ve seen from the Buckeyes so far – yet there are also still plenty of legitimate concerns as they begin the second half of their regular season schedule, which includes four games against teams who are currently ranked in the AP Top 25 (Penn State, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan).
As the Buckeyes begin their second half of the regular season this week with a road test at Indiana, we offer midseason evaluations of what’s gone well and what questions still remain for every Ohio State unit – offense, defense and special teams, as well as every individual position group on offense and defense.
What’s gone well: Ohio State’s offense is currently averaging more points and yards per game than any previous offense in school history. There isn’t much more that needs to be said than that. The only thing that’s stopped the Buckeyes’ first-team offense from scoring in their last two games has been the first-half clock expiring. Ohio State leads the nation in total offense, has averaged a whopping 8.55 yards per play and ranks in the top four nationally in both yards per rushing attempt and yards per passing attempt.
Lingering questions: Is the offense as good as it’s looked to be so far, or are the Buckeyes just beating up on bad defenses? None of Ohio State’s first six opponents are currently ranked in the top 35 nationally in scoring defense, but the Buckeyes’ final five opponents of the regular season are all ranked in the top 35, so there will be many tougher tests to come in the second half of the year.
What’s gone well: C.J. Stroud was spectacular in Ohio State’s final two games of the first half of the season, completing more than 73 percent of his passes for 736 yards and 10 touchdowns with zero interceptions. Stroud ranks second in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision in passer rating (191.2) and passing yards per attempt (10.8) and fourth in passing yards per game (339.8) and has established himself not only as the Buckeyes’ top quarterback but as a Heisman Trophy contender.
Lingering questions: Is Stroud’s shoulder now fully healed, or could the ailment that plagued him in Ohio State’s first three games flare up again later in the season? If it does, will Stroud be able to play through it effectively or will the Buckeyes need to turn to Kyle McCord or Jack Miller? And will we see Quinn Ewers play at all this season? Although Stroud’s last two games have silenced the questions about whether Ohio State is playing its best quarterback, he’ll need to continue to play at that level to keep those questions from popping up again.
What’s gone well: TreVeyon Henderson has immediately lived up to his billing as the No. 1 running back in the recruiting class of 2021. The true freshman running back leads the nation with an average of 8.77 yards per carry and ranks in the top 10 nationally with 11 touchdowns scored. Miyan Williams, Master Teague and Marcus Crowley have also all averaged more than five yards per carry while mixing in with the first-team offense this season, giving the Buckeyes ample depth in the backfield.
Lingering questions: Considering this is Henderson’s first season of college football, he has to prove he can handle the heavy workload that could come his way in the second half of the season and avoid hitting a freshman wall. It also remains unclear how the depth chart will stack up behind Henderson for the rest of the season. Williams began the season as the starter and has been more productive than Teague on a per-play basis, but he has played in only one of the last four games.
What’s gone well: Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were supposed to be the best wide receiver trio in college football, and they haven’t disappointed. All three of them rank in the top 51 nationally in receiving yards per game, combining for 84 catches, 1,492 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns through Ohio State’s first six games. All three of them have already had at least two 100-yard receiving games so far this season.
Lingering questions: Will any other wide receivers earn a role in the rotation? Although Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka received plenty of preseason hype, they played few snaps with the first-team offense in the first six games. There may be no need for any of them to play more as long as Wilson, Olave and Smith-Njigba stay healthy, but Egbuka in particular has flashed the potential to make an impact if he gets more chances to play.
What’s gone well: Jeremy Ruckert, Cade Stover and Mitch Rossi have all been steady as blockers, giving the Buckeyes a trio of tight ends they can rely on as important cogs in their running game. Ruckert’s receiving averages are up slightly from previous seasons, and Rossi had one of the feel-good moments of the season’s first half when he caught his first touchdown pass against Rutgers.
Lingering questions: Could Ruckert’s role in the passing game increase down the stretch? For all the annual offseason chatter about targeting him more, he has only 11 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown through six games. As a unit, Ohio State’s tight ends have caught just 19 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. The Buckeyes don’t need a ton of production from their tight ends as long as their wide receivers keep making plays, but getting Ruckert more involved could make Ohio State’s passing game even more difficult to stop.
What’s gone well: Ohio State is graded by Pro Football Focus as the best run-blocking team in the country so far this season. The Buckeyes’ pass protection has also been strong, allowing just eight sacks in six games. Ohio State’s decision to shake up its offensive line has worked out, as all five starters – left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, left guard Thayer Munford, center Luke Wypler, right guard Paris Johnson Jr. and right tackle Dawand Jones – have been sound. Matt Jones has also been excellent in spot duty at guard, forcing his way into the rotation and giving the Buckeyes a sixth man up front.
Lingering questions: Whether the Buckeyes are actually starting their best possible offensive line remains in question, as Matt Jones currently has the second-highest PFF grade of any Ohio State lineman (behind Petit-Frere) while Munford hasn’t been as dominant at guard as he was at tackle. Is Jones’ strong play so far this season reason to move things around again, or will the Buckeyes stick with the status quo? Center depth is also a question mark, as walk-on freshman Toby Wilson has played all of the snaps at center with the second-team offensive line; would Wilson really be the next man up if anything happened to Wypler, or would it be Jones or Harry Miller, who has played only as a backup guard since returning from injury?
What’s gone well: After a rough start to the season, Ohio State has demonstrated significant progress on defense, holding each of its last four opponents to 20 points or fewer to move into the top 40 nationally in scoring defense. Reassigning play-calling duties from Kerry Coombs to Matt Barnes and revamping the defensive scheme has made a difference, while many of the Buckeyes’ defenders who were inexperienced entering the season have gotten better with time.
Lingering questions: Much like with the offense, the biggest question is whether the defense has actually improved as much as it appears or if it’s simply taken advantage of playing weaker competition. The Buckeyes still haven’t faced an elite offense, and there will be tougher tests to come in the second half of the season, including games against three of the Big Ten’s top five offenses statistically (Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska). Whether Ohio State’s defense is good enough for the Buckeyes to make the College Football Playoff – and make a championship run if they get there – is still very uncertain.
What’s gone well: Five-star freshmen J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer both earned increased playing time as they improved with experience over the first half of the season, giving Ohio State plenty of depth at the position along with veterans Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. Per PFF, Harrison and Smith are two of Ohio State’s five highest-graded defenders, leading the way off the edge for a defense that currently has the 18th-highest pass-rush grade in the country.
Lingering questions: Will this group start dominating games the way it should be able to? Considering all the talent the Buckeyes have at defensive end, this could be considered the most disappointing position group of the first half of the season. Ohio State’s defensive ends have combined for just 5.5 sacks through six games, a number that falls well below expectations for a unit that is, on paper, one of the deepest and most talented groups of edge rushers in the country. Can Harrison, Smith and Jean-Baptiste start making impact plays more consistently, or will Sawyer and Tuimoloau see their roles continue to expand?
What’s gone well: Haskell Garrett has continued to be a disruptive presence at 3-technique, leading the Buckeyes with five tackles for loss, while Antwuan Jackson has performed well as Ohio State’s new starting nose tackle. Tyleik Williams has been a difference-maker off the bench, leading the Buckeyes with four sacks, while Ty Hamilton has also performed well as the No. 2 nose tackle. Add in Taron Vincent and Jerron Cage, and the Buckeyes have been able to rotate six players at defensive tackle while getting solid play from all of them.
Lingering questions: The most immediate question is Garrett’s health after he left the Maryland game early with an injury, though indications have been that Garrett’s injury isn’t serious. Why Williams isn’t playing more than he already is has been a popular question from Ohio State fans, so whether his role will expand in the second half of the season will be a situation to monitor. Can Vincent emerge as more of a difference-maker inside? That’s certainly something the Buckeyes would like to see from the five-star recruit who’s now in his fourth year in the program.
What’s gone well: Cody Simon has shown plenty of promise at middle linebacker, and Steele Chambers has flashed major upside after moving to linebacker from running back this summer. Tommy Eichenberg has shown improvement after a rough start to the season, and Teradja Mitchell has been one of Ohio State’s most productive defenders, leading all linebackers with 33 tackles and four tackles for loss. Collectively, they’ve grown into a solid four-man rotation for the Buckeyes, and coaches have expressed trust in all of them.
Lingering questions: Linebacker play was a clear liability for the Buckeyes at the beginning of the season, and there are still no true stars in the group. Can Mitchell, Simon, Chambers and Eichenberg continue to improve and be reliable for the Buckeyes in big games, or will this unit get exposed again versus better competition? Will high-profile USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote start to make an impact after playing only 23 defensive snaps in the first half of the season? Linebacker depth remains a major question mark following the in-season exits of Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope.
What’s gone well: True freshman Denzel Burke has emerged as an immediate star, providing excellent coverage – per PFF, he hasn’t allowed a single catch of more than 13 yards – and establishing himself as Ohio State’s No. 1 cornerback. Cameron Brown has also been sound in coverage when he’s been on the field. Altogether, Ohio State’s outside cornerback play has been measurably better than it was last season, when Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks were routinely picked on while playing nearly all of the snaps.
Lingering questions: Can Banks get fully healthy and start to perform up to preseason expectations, and can Brown stay on the field consistently? Banks was hyped up as a potential first-round draft pick entering this season, but he has yet to play up to that standard, while Brown has played just two full games due to multiple injuries. Cornerback depth also remains suspect, as Burke, Banks and Brown are the only cornerbacks who have seen regular playing time with the first-team defense. Ryan Day acknowledged last week that he’s “still looking for more consistency and more production” from the cornerbacks, and the Buckeyes haven’t faced many star receivers yet, so this position group still has a lot to prove.
What’s gone well: Ronnie Hickman has been a breakout star, leading the team with 50 total tackles and two interceptions already this season while showing the ability to play both in the box and as a deep safety. Cameron Martinez has shown playmaking ability in coverage, while Marcus Williamson has come on strong in Ohio State’s last couple of games after playing sparingly early in the season. Lathan Ransom and Craig Young have shown the versatility to line up at multiple safety spots, and Hickman, Martinez and Young all have pick-sixes. By changing its defense to use more two-deep defensive looks, Ohio State has seemingly figured out how to adapt to its safety personnel and play to the unit’s strengths.
Lingering questions: Outside of Hickman, all of the other safeties have had up-and-down seasons, so who can the Buckeyes truly rely on at the cover safety and free safety positions? Josh Proctor’s season-ending injury could still loom large in the second half of the season, as neither Bryson Shaw nor Ransom has proven yet to be the consistent “eraser” the Buckeyes want at the free safety position. The Buckeyes still seem to be figuring out who their best safeties are, having started six players between the three safety spots – and that doesn’t include Young or Kourt Williams, who could still be candidates to see their roles increase even though they’ve mostly played only with the second-team defense so far.
What‘s gone well: It hasn’t gotten a ton of attention, but Ohio State has been excellent on special teams this year. Noah Ruggles has made every kick he’s attempted (six field goals and 37 extra points). Jesse Mirco has been consistent as Ohio State’s new punter, averaging more than 44 yards per punt and downing half of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Emeka Egbuka has provided a spark that’s been missing for years in the kickoff return game and has the third-best yards per return average in the country. The Buckeyes have also been strong in kickoff coverage, ranking in the top 15 nationally in yards allowed per opposing kickoff return.
Lingering questions: Ruggles hasn’t yet attempted a field goal longer than 44 yards, so it’s uncertain whether the Buckeyes would trust him to make a long kick with the game on the line. The most obvious question right now is whether this will finally be the year that Ohio State ends its kickoff return touchdown drought, which dates back to Jordan Hall against Michigan in 2010. The Buckeyes could use more of a spark in the punt return game, too, though Day said last week that Ohio State is prioritizing ball security in fielding punts.