The Buckeyes are one of the few teams on Nebraska’s schedule this season who have strayed from their preseason preview. Of course it would be Ohio State. So instead of just giving a little bit of new context on top of an old preview, here's a new preview.
I wrote in July that looking at 2018 Ohio State was like delving a bit into nihilism. Replacing an all-time great quarterback, eh. Replacing an all-conference center again, eh. Reloading on defense, eh. None of that looked like it mattered because Ohio State is Ohio State and Urban Meyer has consistently overstocked the cupboard on defense and the offense returned JK Dobbins and Mike Weber.
Turns out all that stuff mattered.
We’ll start on the offensive side of the ball. The Buckeyes are an elite passing team. To be fair, they’re an elite point-scoring team overall. This is a 7-1 team with the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins has excelled doing the one thing many critics said JT Barrett wasn’t any good at. The Buckeyes are seventh in the country in passing S&P+ and Haskins is hitting on over 70 percent of his throws (the team’s completion rate is second nationally). Any throw you need a championship quarterback to make, he’s shown the ability to make.
Ohio State is good on throwing downs (10th in S&P+, 10th in marginal efficiency, 16th in marginal explosiveness on passing downs), really good on third down despite facing a ton of third-and-longs and good at protecting the quarterback.
The issue the Buckeyes are running into is sort of the same thing Nebraska fans encountered last season moving from Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Tanner Lee (the first and only time ever Tanner Lee will be compared to Dwayne Haskins). Barrett could take off and pick up 10 yards any time he dropped back to throw the ball. Defenses had to account for that, even when he wasn’t getting the call to run.
And Ohio State’s offense has been built around that dual-threat ability since Meyer took over. It’s a spread RPO attack that is now without the quarterback running threat. Defenses are stacking the box and selling out to stop Dobbins and Weber knowing Haskins won’t beat them with his legs. Purdue took this and executed to a tee. Haskins had a record-breaking passing day, topped 70 attempts and the Boilermakers still won by 29 points.
From July’s preview:
“Dobbins rumbled for 1,403 yards at an absurd 7.2 yards-per-carry average. Weber scored 10 touchdowns on 101 carries. They were so good running the ball efficiently they didn’t even need to be explosive. (They still were; 28th in the country in explosive-play percentage, not that it mattered. They were moving down the field anyway.)
“Ohio State had the best rushing success rate in the country (53.6 percent), the third-best opportunity rate in the country (46.1 percent) and the third-best stuff rate in the country (12.2) and there’s nothing to suggest the running game won’t be elite again in 2018.
“Both of the aforementioned runners are back, as well as an offensive line that includes an All-Big Ten guard, a third-team All-Big Ten tackle, two other upperclassmen with a season’s worth of starts and blue-chip youngsters. Did I mention second-team All-Big Ten running back J.K. Dobbins and honorable mention All-Big Ten running back Mike Weber are back? I did? Good. Important not to forget about them.”
Let’s update those numbers. Dobbins is averaging 4.3 yards a carry this season. Weber has been better, with 5.1 yards a tote, but he doesn’t have the same kind of scoring output. Efficiency is down to 73rd in the country, opportunity rate is down to 47th and stuff rate is down to 76th.
The pieces are back and it just hasn’t meshed yet. A Haskins-led offense has also been surprisingly inexplosive. The passing game ranks 52nd in marginal explosiveness and the rushing attack is at 120th. They’re hitting for 20 yards at the 57th-best rate in the country.
On the other side, the defense is a mess.
In the secondary, the Buckeyes continue to rely on press-man coverage without the athletes or talent they’ve had in the past that made that strategy work. If you beat your guy, you’ve got green grass in front of you and opposing teams have been beating their guys. The Buckeyes rank 108th in big play rate, giving up 20 yards on nearly 10 percent of opponent plays. But, to be fair to the secondary, the rush defense is giving up chunk plays at a high rate too.
Turns out all those losses up front actually meant something, especially now that Nick Bosa has left the team to prepare for the NFL Draft. In total, the Buckeyes had to replace seven starters on defense; how foolish of me to think that wouldn’t matter (he says with a small dose of sarcasm, it shouldn’t to this degree given the Buckeyes recruiting success).
Purdue’s blueprint will be the one that everyone tries to replicate from here on out. Get enough stops on defense to keep yourself in the game, don’t shoot yourself out of the game with turnovers and then get playmakers in space. Not everyone has a Rondale Moore to carve up the middle of the field but the defensive approach is sound; the Buckeyes had a 25 percent success rate rushing the ball. The national average is 41 percent.
One dimensional offenses don’t win high-level football games, especially without an elite defense. Ohio State has played three top-50 teams by S&P+ and it has trailed in all three of them. The TCU game was close in the third, the Penn State game looked out of reach in the fourth and Purdue ran away. Things are trending the wrong direction.
Again, still a very good football team, but this is not the Ohio State team anyone expected to see this year.