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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Ohio State Buckeyes Edition

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Fans of both sides can agree that September football games don’t get much bigger than this one.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

One of the many reasons why college football fans love their sport is that every game on the schedule means so much. When over 100 teams are vying for just four Playoff spots, one misstep can doom a season, and games between powerhouses turn into de facto elimination games.

Thanks to the Big Ten Championship Game and the unpredictability of college football, the loser of Ohio State vs. Penn State could get back into the Playoff hunt later in the season. However, the winner will control its own destiny the rest of the way when it comes to winning the Big Ten East division.

As expected, both the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes are undefeated, but both teams aren’t without their flaws. Penn State nearly lost its opener against Appalachian State due to a defensive meltdown in the fourth quarter. The unit has looked much better since then, but it also hasn’t been tested by an offense as explosive as Ohio State’s.

As for Urban Meyer’s team, it has so far only looked vulnerable in the TCU game. The Buckeyes trailed in the third quarter during the Power Five showdown, but three big plays in a row — one each from Ohio State’s offense, defense, and special teams — helped them stave off the upset.

Still, big point totals by TCU and Oregon State against Ohio State’s defense have shown that the Buckeyes can be burnt by big plays, and Penn State has the athletes to take advantage. For more on Ohio State as we head into this epic clash, we spoke with Matt Tamanini, one of the managing editors at SB Nation’s Ohio State blog, Land-Grant Holy Land. Thanks to Matt for taking the time to answer our questions. Matt has some interesting opinions about a certain rivalry that Penn State fans might enjoy.

Also, I answered some questions from LGHL, and you can find that story over here.

Black Shoe Diaries: Dwayne Haskins has been sensational so far, even in Ohio State one tough game against TCU. It seems that he might already be a better thrower of the football than J.T. Barrett was. Is this true? Will Urban Meyer resist running the ball with his quarterback when the stakes are high this year?

Land-Grant Holy Land: Oh, there is no doubt that Haskins is a better passer than Barrett. In fact — despite the small sample size — I believe that it can be legitimately argued that Haskins is the best passing quarterback in Ohio State history, but it’s probably still premature to make that declaration. The question about Meyer allowing him to throw, rather than run in a close, high-pressure game is interesting though.

Since Meyer wasn’t on the sideline against TCU, we haven’t really had a chance to put it to the test this year, but it would seem foolish to expect Haskins to run the ball anywhere near as effectively as Barrett or Braxton Miller. There have been very few designed runs for Haskins this year, so I can’t imagine that he will be called upon to run much against Penn State. However, the question remains as to whether or not Meyer will let him throw as much as he has through the first four games, or if he will default back to the running game.

Coming off of his three-game suspension, Meyer said that he was going to allow Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson to run the show offensively, and that he was going to be a game manager. That’s easy to say when you are facing Tulane, but it’s a much different circumstance when you are facing a team as good as Penn State. Both Meyer and Day have said throughout the season that the emphasis on the passing game has, at least in part, been based on the defensive approach of their opponents. If Penn State focuses on stopping the run, I would hope that Meyer allows Day to keep the play calls focused on Haskins’s arm. But, if the Nittany Lions watch film from OSU’s first four games and adjust to focus on the passing game, I would expect the play calling to revert to the Urban Meyer norm of trying to have a close to 50/50 balance on offense.

BSD: J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber have both had a lot of success running the ball so far, as both have averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Also, both are listed at 5’10” and 214 pounds. Are there situations that dictate when one is used over the other, or is it more of a “hot hand” scenario?

LGHL: Weber has been a little dinged up over the last few games, but otherwise, the coaches have tried to split carries up mostly by possession this season. Neither has played much in the second half of games, other than against TCU, and Dobbins took the heavy lifting in that game. However, you are right, as games have progressed, we have seen the coaches go with the player who has the apparent matchup advantage.

As you alluded to, the backs share a lot of traits, and while it is easy to try and slot them into the cliche “thunder and lightening” designations, they aren’t that dynamically different from each other. However, in general, Weber is the north-south, between-the-tackles runner. Since the middle of last season, he has shown an increased burst and ability to run away from defenders, but his strength is his ability to absorb contact and continue moving forward. Dobbins, on the other hand, tends to be the more elusive back. He is much more likely to bounce outside and run away from defenders.

Both have shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well. If the game plan requires more from the backs than Haskins, I would imagine that they will be used mostly interchangeably.

BSD: K.J. Hill leads the Buckeyes in receptions, but Parris Campbell has been the more explosive pass-catcher with at least one touchdown in each game, including a 63-yard score in Dallas that was the turning point in the TCU game. Does offensive coordinator Ryan Day prefer using Campbell on deep routes, or does he like letting him catch it near the line of scrimmage so he can run with it? What other Ohio State receivers should Penn State fans be aware of?

LGHL: After years of not having and/or under-utilizing talented receivers, this year— thanks in no small part to Haskins’s ability to actually throw the ball with a degree of accuracy that J.T. Barrett never even approached — the full complement of wide receivers have been on display. Up until the Tulane game, Campbell has primarily been used in the screen/short passing game, since technically in the OSU offense he is the starting H-back. In the first three games, we saw a lot of short passes to him that he was able to turn into large gains.

However, with Meyer back on the sideline against Tulane, we saw him as a deep threat really for the first time on the season. Campbell is incredibly fast, and can be effective deep, but I think his strength is closer to the line of scrimmage, as he provides a dangerous weapon that must be accounted for, while also opening the back half of the field for the other receivers.

K.J. Hill has come on very strong this season, proving to be an incredibly reliable receiver. He’s not as flashy as Campbell, or Austin Mack, or Johnnie Dixon, but if Haskins gets the ball in his general vicinity, chances are he’s going to make the catch. Terry McLaurin is another guy that splits the difference between the short and deep routes.

BSD: The win over Tulane last weekend was Ohio State’s first with Urban Meyer back on the sidelines. Was anything noticeably different about the team or the game plan?

LGHL: Thankfully, no. As I said before, there was some nervousness among Buckeye fans as to whether or not he would stick to the game manager role or not. The only main difference that we saw was how the offense used Campbell. Everything else was pretty consistent from the first three weeks.

BSD: With Nick Bosa out due to injury, who will pick up the slack for the Ohio State pass rush?

LGHL: There is no doubt that the Buckeye defensive line, and especially the pass rush, will miss Bosa in this game. Fortunately, (as your readers probably know very well) the philosophy of defensive line coach Larry Johnson has always been to rotate lineman, getting a number of players experience. So, although the best defensive lineman on the team won’t be there, Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper have more than enough playing time to be able to adjust to the big stage.

The interior linemen Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers have been very reliable as well. Jones is in on the pass-rushing “Rushmen” package, and even though he is a tackle, he has the speed and athleticism of an end. It’s never a good thing to lose a player as valuable as Bosa, but fortunately for Buckeye fans, defensive line is likely the deepest position group on the team.

BSD: The Ohio State defense struggled against the pass in losses to Oklahoma and Iowa last year. Will pass defense continue to be an issue with Damon Webb and Denzel Ward no longer in place?

LGHL: It has been a bit of a roller coaster for the OSU secondary this year. However, for the most part, they’ve done fairly well, considering how inexperienced they are. They’ve settled into a rotation of Isaiah Pryor and Jordan Fuller at safety, and Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette at corner. Shaun Wade has seen a lot of time in nickel packages, and Jansen Wint is rotated in at safety as well. Almost all of the defensive backs have had their difficult moments this season, but it is really the OSU linebackers that have struggled.

The Buckeye defense has been gashed for an inordinate number of big plays so far this season, and most of them have come from offensive players getting the ball in space, making a linebacker miss, and running for 40 to 50 yards. Early in the season we saw the linebackers take really poor angles, perhaps misjudging their own speed. That seems to have been cleared up a little bit, but their tackling has been atrocious.

This is another area where losing Bosa hurts. The more that the defensive line can do to stop ball carriers, the less the linebackers will be responsible for!

BSD: The Buckeyes are four-point favorites on the road this Saturday. How do you see the game going for Ohio State?

LGHL: I haven’t checked my agreement with LGHL lately, but I believe that I am contractually obligated to pick Ohio State in these types of games. So, I will. However, I am not going to call for them to cover. I reserve the right to change this for Land Grant’s official picks on Saturday, but I’m going to go OSU 35, PSU 32.

Thanks again to Matt Tamanini for taking time out of his busy schedule to help us out with our coverage. For more on Ohio State sports all year round, be sure to check out Land-Grant Holy Land!