Ohio State is undeniably the class of the Big Ten, but that doesn't mean the prognosticators aren't getting ahead of themselves when they wonder, loudly, whether an undefeated Buckeye squad would automatically find themselves playing for a national championship. Teams like Wisconsin and Northwestern went toe-to-toe with Ohio State, and Iowa led throughout most of the first half last Saturday in Columbus before remembering that, oh right, they're Iowa. Led by Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, and a defense that features Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, there's no doubt that Ohio State will be the best team Penn State plays this year, but there's plenty more to know about the Buckeyes than their future NFL studs. So I reached out to Michael Citro of Eleven Warriors, who answered my most pressing questions about his squad. Read 11W all season long to stay up to date on the Buckeyes, and especially today for my answers to his queries about Penn State.
On to the questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: Aside from the Wisconsin game, Braxton Miller's been merely very good, and his struggles early had Urban Meyer nearly turning to Kenny Guiton in that Northwestern game. What's been the chink in his armor, or is it just defensive coordinators gaining familiarity with him?
Eleven Warriors: Actually, in addition to the Wisconsin game, Braxton may have played his best collegiate game on Saturday against Iowa. He was very accurate, read the coverage quickly, and looked fluid and confident running the football. The Northwestern game was actually not that bad, but Meyer abhors turnovers and Miller was too loose with the football that night. Miller admitted he was thinking too much about his knee in Evanston. He appears to be fully healed now and is back to making his video game moves on the field.
BSD: Much has been made of Ohio State's soft schedule potentially costing them come bowl season. Do you feel like this is a team worthy of playing for a national title, and what do you make of Gene Smith's out-of-conference scheduling?
There’s a lot of football to be played, and these things usually work themselves out by the end of the season (see also: the upsets of the last two Saturdays). I think too much has been made of the B1G being down, but it certainly needs to get better. If the Buckeyes get through the schedule undefeated they certainly should be in the discussion. The thing to remember about the non-conference scheduling is that teams like Vanderbilt and Tennessee have pulled out of scheduled games and California was an upper tier Pac team when scheduled and San Diego State was projected as a nine or 10-win team. In the coming years we’ll see the likes of Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Oregon, North Carolina and Boston College. In the recent past we’ve scheduled Texas, USC, and Miami. People seem to be overlooking all of that based on last year and this year. That said, we should never, ever, ever, EVER play the likes of Florida A&M again.
BSD: Heading into this season, most Big Ten fans thought Bradley Roby was the best cornerback in the country. But Ohio State has the second worst pass defense in the Big Ten at over 243 yards per game allowed. Has Roby failed to live up to expectations, or has the rest of the secondary been the culprit?
11W: Roby has not played up to his usual level this season and Meyer even said that this week. However, the pass defense issues go much deeper than him. Ohio State has played a lot of very soft underneath coverage this season for whatever reason and teams are taking those chunks. In addition, there have been some coverage miscommunications in zone and a few missed tackles factoring into some of that yardage. The pass coverage by the linebackers and safeties has been the biggest issue, in my opinion. And Ohio State has been playing with the lead most of the season, which lends itself to giving up more passing yards. The Buckeyes rarely play man coverage anymore, but when they have tightened down it has paid dividends, as with Doran Grant's key interception against Northwestern.
BSD: Urban Meyer's never had a 1000-yard back, but Carlos Hyde, after barely playing in September, looks like he'll be making a run at that number--and Jordan Hall's numbers are just as good. How do those backs stack up against a Penn State rush D that held Fitzgerald Toussaint to 27 yards on 27 carries?
11W: Well Miller did gain 1,000 yards last season but yeah, still no 1,000-yard running back for Meyer. Hyde fell only 30 yards short a year ago only because he missed 2-1/2 games with an injury and Ohio State was ineligible for the B1G title game and a bowl. From what I’ve seen, the Buckeyes have the best offensive line in the conference and it’s playing at a very high level right now. I’d certainly take Hyde and probably Hall over Toussaint as well. I watched that Michigan-Penn State game and, while the Nittany Lions defense played well, the Wolverines did themselves no favors with plays like this.
BSD: The Buckeyes struggled early against Iowa last week before coming back to dominate in the second half. What weaknesses did the Hawkeyes exploit, and what adjustments did Urban Meyer make?
Iowa came out in a three-tight end set that Ohio State apparently didn't prepare for and ran the ball better than expected in the first half. This allowed the Hawkeyes to put together long, sustained drives by giving them mostly very short third downs. The Buckeyes figured it out, but didn’t make the adjustment until halftime. After that the defense gave up only one big play in the passing game for Iowa’s lone second-half score. The offense stopped itself a couple of times, and was handcuffed by the small number of first-half possessions. But the Buckeyes didn’t punt all day and it was only a matter of time before they took the lead for good. Miller and Hyde both topped 100 rushing yards and Braxton was efficient, hitting 22/27 for 222 yards and two touchdowns, without a turnover.
BSD: How do you see Saturday's game shaping up?
11W: I believe this game will be a lot like Ohio State-Iowa, with Penn State using its tight ends and underneath passing to keep the Buckeye offense on the sidelines as much as possible and occasionally taking some shots downfield with Allen Robinson. The Buckeyes will try to run the football and throw some quick packaged plays off play action to keep Penn State honest, trying some shots to Philly Brown and Devin Smith at times. I expect a close game with Ohio State riding Hyde and that offensive line down the stretch when the defense is tired. I expect the Nittany Lions to hang around all game long, possibly leading for long stretches, which will drive me to the beer fridge early and often. If Ohio State can avoid turnovers it probably pulls out a close win.
Thanks again, Michael, and remember to read Eleven Warriors.