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Interviews with Frenemies: Ohio State

Ranked No. 2. Heisman-caliber quarterback. Must be nice.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State heads on the road for just the second time this season. We had some questions about the No. 2 Buckeyes and Matt Tamanini from Land-Grant Holy Land answered them.

1. In watching the Notre Dame game to open the season, Ryan Day seemed very pleased with the style that Ohio State won with, citing their toughness and ability to grind it out. Do you get the sense that this Buckeye team is tougher/more physical than recent versions?

In all honesty, it wouldn’t take much for this year’s team to be tougher/more physical than in 2021. So, I can definitely say that this year’s group — especially along both lines — is much more capable of playing physically than other recent vintages. While the offensive line was very good in pass protection last year, they struggled in run blocking, so that became an emphasis during the offseason. So far this year, there has been general improvement in that regard, but it has been hit-or-miss at times.

Against Notre Dame, they really made the difference in the second half, and, for the most part, continued that dominant trend throughout the first half of the season. However, against the first legitimate defense that they faced this season, they were completely stymied by Iowa. Granted, the Buckeyes threw the ball essentially at will in the second half, allowing them to win by 44 points, but it was noticeable that the offensive line struggled against the Hawkeyes’ elite defense.

On OSU’s defensive line, things were a little different. Last year, they were good, respectable, but never great. This year they have been very good and at times brilliant. The Buckeyes don’t have a dominant edge rusher like a Bosa or Chase Young, but they have a trio of ends who regularly wreak havoc on offensive lines in Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer, and J.T. Tuimoloau.

They have been aided in the middle by a finally healthy Taron Vincent and the meteoric rise of sophomore tackle Mike Hall Jr. He is third in the league in sacks and tackles for loss per game, having dealt with some minor injuries throughout the season. But, his ability to blow up plays at the point of the attack has completely recontextualized what this defensive line is capable of.

And the line’s success has been aided by one of the best linebackers in the country in Tommy Eichenberg. I never in my wildest dreams would have expected to say that about him even a year ago, but his play on the field has certainly warranted it through seven games. Now, of course, it remains to be seen if the OSU defense can maintain their top-10 level of production against quality offenses, but I certainly like their chances this year far more than I did in 2021.

2. Let’s talk about C.J. Stroud. He seems destined to, at the very least, be on stage at the Downtown Athletic Club in December. Comparing him to other Ohio State quarterbacks of the past, is he the best?

Man, that is such a tough question, because they are all so different. In terms of the Ryan Day era, he came in for J.T. Barrett’s final season in Columbus, and as important as he was to the history of the Ohio State program, he will never be mistaken for one most talented quarterbacks in Buckeye history.

From there, Day had the late Dwayne Haskins who was a gun-slinger of the highest order, someone who could seemingly throw the ball from end zone to end zone if he wanted to, but lacked some of the refinement and experience that you want in a top-line QB. Justin Fields had the best of both worlds; a rocket arm and a far better ability to put touch on the ball and fit it into windows. But, by virtue of the fact that he often didn’t have to, he never showed the next-level ability to run through multiple options.

Now Stroud does not have the same type of arm that his two immediate predecessors had — nor Fields’ athletic ability outside of the pocket — but he does seem to have some of Barrett’s patience and decision-making capability, coupled with Haskin’s confidence, and Fields’ ability to put the ball in the exact spot it needs to be.

Of course, Stroud is by no means perfect. He does have a tendency to force the ball into impossibly tight windows at times, and when he is not in rhythm can overthrow his targets, however, I wouldn’t be opposed to saying that he is the most well-rounded recent OSU quarterback. I think he’s still got a little ways to go to be “the best,” but he’s certainly on the precipice of that, should the rest of this season go the way that he would like it to.

3. The Buckeyes have battled some health issues at times this year with their offense, notably Jackson Smith-Njigba. How is Ohio State looking in terms of health heading into Saturday and what are your expectations for this offense playing on the road for the second time?

I would be completely shocked if Jaxon Smith-Njigba played on Saturday, in fact, I am beginning to wonder if we will ever see him suit up in scarlet and gray again. Fortunately, as wild as this is to say, I don’t think his absence — be it short-term or long-term — will really impact the OSU offense. They are fortunate to have an unbelievable collection of pass-catchers, including tight end Cade Stover, so while having a fully healthy JSN in the rotation would obviously be a wonderful addition, they have been able to pick up the slack without him.

On defense, the only major injury of note currently is cornerback Cameron Brown. The corners have been a pain point for OSU this season as they started fall camp with only six scholarship players in the room, and the top three have all experienced injuries throughout the campaign. Denzel Burke had been playing with a cast on his hand, but that is gone now and Jordan Hancock looked good in his first limited action last week against Iowa.

Brown is not expected to play on Saturday (although Ohio State gives little to no information on injuries, so we are mostly just guessing), so the corners will likely be some sort of rotation between Burke, Hancock, and JK Johnson.

4. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was a high profile coaching acquisition. How have the returns been in his first year?

I mean, the proof is in the pudding. In nearly all important metrics, the Buckeye defense is in the top 10, a gigantic jump from the also ran unit they had last year. Now, of course, this comes with all of the caveats that they really haven’t played an offense of note yet, but even so, the improvement has been obvious and remarkable.

The biggest difference — beyond the toughness that you mentioned earlier — is the aggression. Dating back to Greg Shiano’s days as OSU’s coordinator, the defense had been more of a passive, “keep everything in front of you” unit. However, under Knowles, he is bringing far more pressure than in years past, he is mixing up coverages and looks, and tailoring the defensive approach to the opposing offense and (most importantly) the players at his disposal.

All too often, the Ohio State defensive coaches — primarily because of coaching turnover — tried to fit square pegs into the round holes of a scheme that they refused to adapt to the talent on their roster. That doesn’t seem to be the case this year. While the unit will give up the occasional big play because of Knowles’ aggression, this defense seems to be far more set up for success than in recent years — outside of Jeff Hafley’s one season as DC in 2019.

5. Any keys or predictions for Saturday afternoon’s (we know you guys miss ruining the White Out) game in Happy Valley?

I haven’t started to think about a score yet, but I would imagine that OSU won’t put up nearly as many yards as it has been accustomed to this season, and that they will give up more than they generally have as well.

It seems that no matter how good the respective teams are in this series, it is always close, fraught, and often comes down to the wire. Obviously based on what we saw in Penn State’s only loss of the season, whether or not the Buckeyes can establish the run more than they did against Iowa will almost certainly have a huge impact. I’d suspect that the PSU secondary is going to give the Buckeye receivers their biggest challenge of the season, so being able to reliably pick up yardage on early downs will go a long way.

I don’t think that there is really a secondary in college football that can shut down the OSU passing attack, but if anyone on the Buckeyes’ schedule is going to slow them down, I expect it to be this one. So, because I am an admitted homer, I am going to take the Buckeyes, but I would guess that it will be close throughout, perhaps with Ohio State adding on an extra score late in the game to make it look like a bigger victory than it actually was.

Of course, I do reserve the right to let my scarlet and gray colored glasses impact my final score prediction, but this is how I feel about it at this moment.

We thank Matt for his time and encourage all of you to head over to his site, Land-Grant Holy Land, for more coverage of this matchup from the Buckeye perspective.