Ohio State kicks off vs. Indiana, hoping to erase bad memories of last season’s finish
BLOOMINGTON, IND. Ohio State’s push for the College Football Playoff begins Thursday night in Bloomington, Ind., with a matchup against Indiana that has no shortage of story lines.
Right off the bat: The Buckeyes’ new offensive coordinator, Kevin Wilson, resigned as the head coach at Indiana in December amid allegations of player mistreatment, adding a layer of intrigue to this season-opening pairing.
But there’s far more to keep in mind as No. 2 Ohio State takes aim at a return trip to the Playoff, after last season’s humbling loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.
That was a last-straw moment for coach Urban Meyer, who quickly jettisoned former coordinator Tim Beck in favor of Wilson, the former Oklahoma assistant with a reputation as one of college football’s top offensive minds.
The offense will be under the spotlight, potentially overshadowing the factors — known and unknown — that could either lift this program to its second national championship under Meyer or lead OSU to cede the Big Ten Conference East Division to Penn State or rival Michigan.
As the Buckeyes prepare for the opener, here are four aspects to consider: the offense, the quarterback, the defensive line and the secondary.
The biggest change to Ohio State’s attack is in pace and tempo, two factors — along with elite quarterback play and a varied list of skill talent — that defined Wilson’s scheme during an impressive stint with Oklahoma.
What might be slightly overlooked is how Wilson’s philosophy of attacking defenses entails sharing the wealth, which might represent an equally profound change from the Buckeyes’ 2016 system. A year ago, OSU was simply too reliant on all-purpose standout Curtis Samuel; that wasn’t evident against most teams but painfully clear when facing off against the elite opponents on its schedule.
Thursday night’s kickoff will begin to answer three important questions facing the offense:
uHow fast can Ohio State move — or how many plays can this offense cram into 60 minutes?
uWill the running game find success along the interior, from one guard to the other?
uCan Wilson find a way to get the ball out of quarterback J.T. Barrett’s hands and into the arms of the Buckeyes’ talented crop of skill players?
Speaking of Barrett, there’s no doubting the drive, leadership skills and grasp of what Meyer demands from the position. What might be up for debate is whether Barrett can reclaim his freshman year form, when he piloted Ohio State to the doorstep of the Playoff, and make a charge at the Heisman Trophy.
That we’re even discussing that possibility speaks to Barrett’s potential in this offense. Based on Wilson’s history, it’s obvious that the senior will be put into can’tfail situations, or at least into spots that take advantage of his positives while shying away from his potential negatives.
But here’s one thing about Barrett: As much as anyone, if not more so, he was frustrated by the way the Buckeyes system sputtered in 2016. For a student-athlete never lacking for motivation, the chance to take center stage in one of college football’s most quarterback-friendly schemes gives Barrett an opportunity to turn the page in time for one last push for a title.
THE DEFENSIVE LINE
The argument over which team brings the hardiest defensive line into 2017 really focuses on two teams: Ohio State and Clemson. While the Tigers’ front is downright filthy — having Dexter Lawrence alongside Christian Wilkins at tackle is just mean — no team can sniff the Buckeyes’ depth.
How deep? Loaded enough at end, for example, that the Buckeyes have tinkered with an alignment that puts five on the field simultaneously. In part, the ability to trot out exotic formations is a testament not only to the unit’s depth but individual players’ ability to flex between multiple positions; senior Jalyn Holmes can play end, tackle or stand up as a rush linebacker, for instance.
That’s scary. But it doesn’t stop there. Tyquan Lewis. Nick Bosa. Sam Hubbard. Holmes. Freshmen Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper.
And that’s just on the outside. Tracy Sprinkle and Dre’Mont Jones hold down the fort along the interior, giving the Buckeyes enough quality bodies to roll out wave after wave of top-tier talent at opposing offenses.
One more question to consider: How capably can Ohio State rebuild a defensive backfield that lost three starters to the first round of the NFL draft? (Yes, three.) Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley leave big shoes to fill. But recent history is on the Buckeyes’ side.
Like, very recent history. Don’t forget that the secondary was a potential question mark heading into last season, when the defense had to replace three starters. The pass defense was even better. There’s no doubt that OSU’s defensive staff feels confident in what the new cast brings to the table.
The leadership role falls to senior safety Damon Webb, the lone returning starter. But the breakout star might be junior cornerback Denzel Ward, who has next-level speed and has shown flashes of big-play potential. Opposite Ward, the Buckeyes will lean on sophomores Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield, the latter a five-star junior college transfer. Expectations are high for Sheffield.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett helped Ohio State win the 2014 national title and would love to deliver a second trophy.