Last season, amid the oft-anemic offense and sometimes outwardly simple play-calling, Ohio State still managed to make the College Football Playoff.
Even without a conference championship to affirm their standing, the College Football Playoff Committee viewed the Buckeyes as one of the top four teams in the country. Mostly — if not all — because of the ‘Silver Bullets,’ Ohio State’s disruptive defense. Perhaps more specifically their pass defense, which boasted three first-round picks in this year’s NFL Draft.
Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, and Marshon Lattimore — now all looking to make their first starts in the NFL later this weekend — formed a secondary that ranked sixth in the country in passing yards allowed last season, tallying an incredible 15 interceptions between the three players.
But now it’s 2017, meaning Hooker and company can no longer patrol the secondary for Greg Schiano’s Buckeye defense. And against Indiana last week in the season opener, their absence couldn’t have been more apparent.
By the time the first half had ended in Bloomington last Thursday, Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow had already racked up 299 yards through the air; 98 to big-bodied receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr.
To better put that number into perspective, the Buckeyes of 2016 never allowed an opposing quarterback to exceed more than 259 yards (Deshaun Watson) in an entire game, let alone a half. But just 30 minutes into this season’s opener, and the Indiana Hoosiers had already surpassed every team the Buckeyes faced last year passing the ball.
Lagow would go on to finish the game with 410 yards through the air; the most passing yards allowed by an Ohio State defense since 2013, when former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner managed 451 yards in Urban Meyer’s second year with the Buckeye program.
Moreover, 12 separate times did the Buckeye secondary allow a pass play of 15-plus yards last week, with the majority going to receivers Simmie Cobbs Jr. and Donovan Hale; both 6’4.”
Most of the time, however, those downfield completions weren’t even due to poor coverage.
Denzel Ward, the Buckeyes’ number one corner this season, stands just 5’10.’’ Opposite of Ward is Damon Arnette, who lists at a generous 6’0” according to Ohio State’s official roster.
So when the Buckeyes started out playing solely man coverage in the first half, quarterback Richard Lagow could seemingly do no wrong, throwing the ball up for grabs for his receivers to make a play.
Last season, the Buckeyes were fortunate to have corners like Lattimore and Conley on the roster, who stands 6’1” and 6’2” respectively. With their vertical range and length, the Buckeyes could get away with playing a predominantly man defensive scheme.
It’s why both were selected among the top 25 picks in this year’s NFL draft.
But for Ward and Arnette (and the rest of the 2017 secondary), they don’t have such luxuries.
Later tonight the Buckeyes will face off with the fifth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners — a rematch after last year’s 45-24 victory — and much like Indiana, the Sooners possess a number of rangy receivers capable of making big downfield plays.
Mark Andrews, Oklahoma’s leading receiver heading into tonight’s game with 134 yards, stands 6’5,” towering over every Buckeye defensive back on the roster. The Sooners’ other two starting receivers — freshman CeeDee Lamb and senior Jeffrey Mead — list at 6’3” and 6’5” respectively, leaving plenty of questions for the Buckeyes’ young defensive backs.
It is worth noting, however, that the Buckeyes held Lagow’s Hoosiers to just 187 total yards in the second half of Thursday night’s game, winning 49-21 after trailing 14-13 at half time.
All because of second half adjustments.
Instead of coming out in man coverage to start the second half, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano switched to a more zone-based coverage, allowing Ward and Arnette much needed help in coverage while simultaneously forcing Lagow to make more accurate passes.
Baker Mayfield, however — Oklahoma’s Heisman-hopeful senior quarterback — is not Caleb Lagow.
With over 90 touchdown passes throughout his four-year career with both Texas Tech and Oklahoma, Mayfield has picked apart his fair share of zone-based defenses.
Ultimately, it will all come down to how the Buckeyes utilize their undersized cornerbacks.
If Schiano and the Buckeyes elect for more man-based coverage against the Sooners, don’t be surprised to see a repeat performance of Indiana’s gunslinging opening half last Thursday. And if zone coverage is the preferred game plan, Baker Mayfield is more than capable of finding the holes left in coverage.
It’s an impossible situation for the Buckeyes. A situation that never presented itself last season.
Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette are more than capable of holding their own against most receivers in college football, but Oklahoma possesses not only highly recruited receivers, but a quarterback that leads all active NCAA players in both yardage and touchdowns.
Ohio State’s stellar defensive line will certainly take some pressure away from the young secondary, but will it be enough to keep the Sooners off the scoreboard?
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