The Spartans and Buckeyes put on a great show for us on Saturday night. The Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead that left the Buckeyes shell shocked, but the Buckeyes had a trump card for their slow start which was Braxton Miller. Miller, accompanied with Hyde and Philly Brown, helped to chip away at the lead and got the Buckeyes within seven by half.
The Buckeyes then came out in the second half guns a blazing, scoring two touchdowns and playing dominantly on defense. The game looked to be over and the Buckeyes, with one more score, looked bound for Pasadena. However, the grit and never quit in the Spartans helped them to dominate Ohio State in the 4th quarter when it mattered. Their early jump, and late dominance helped earn the Spartans their first Big Ten conference title in 25 years, and also a trip to the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes 24 game win streak was snapped, but more importantly their national title dreams were shattered.
While that may be a pretty good summary of what happened Saturday night, we all know there were a lot more factors that went in to what transpired on the field.
Too Much Lightning
Saturday night was just the second time all season that Braxton Miller led the team in rushing attempts with 22. According to offensive coordinator Tom Herman, the Buckeye coaching staff struggled to find formations for Hyde to successfully run. Therefore, the Buckeye run game stuck with Miller, which was part of the offensive downfall. The Buckeye run game became very predictable, for example, when Miller was left alone in the backfield it felt like everyone in Lucas Oil knew Miller was running a quarterback draw. Not only was the run game predictable, but the majority of Miller’s success did not even come on designed runs, it was when Miller escaped the pocket and created something out of nothing.
While Miller was successful scrambling, it was a cover up for the Buckeyes more troubling issue. The Buckeye wide receivers could not get separation from the Spartan corners. When they did get a chance to make a play, the receivers did not help Miller out by dropping the ball. Miller threw the ball fairly well. He hung up a couple of deep balls, but they were still catchable balls and plays Brown, Smith, and Spencer should have made.
With the passing game not working, Miller and the play calling became extremely inefficient. Herman and Meyer decided the offenses best bet was to keep it on the ground with Miller. That decision led to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi dialing up his exotic blitzes, and successfully slowing down the Buckeye high octane offense.
The Silver Bullets of the Buckeye defense flashed at times on Saturday night, but came up shooting blanks frequently. The young Buckeye defensive line played extremely fast and powerful throughout the majority of the game. Freshman standout Joey Bosa played like a man on fire, constantly harassing Connor Cook in the backfield and providing the Buckeyes with big tackles for loss. His effort alone held Sparty at bay on some drives. It was late in the game where the Buckeyes young line began to get gashed by the Spartan run game.
Since the Buckeye offense could not sustain drives, and the Buckeye back seven had to lay off the line of scrimmage, the Buckeye defensive line was left alone to stop the run late in the game. Credit to Michigan State for sticking with their run game even if it was unsuccessful, because it constantly deceived Buckeye linebackers and defensive backs throughout the game.
The undisciplined nature of this Buckeye secondary reared its ugly head again on Saturday. Senior safety Corey Brown attempted to intercept a pass that was clearly thrown over him, which led to a 72 yard touchdown pass. That was followed by fellow senior safety C.J. Barnett getting burned on a double move for another long touchdown pass. Barnett got burned again on the Spartans third touchdown pass, as he lost is man in man coverage, on a throw back to the tight end in the corner of the endzone. The same issues that plagued the Buckeyes against Michigan, that Coach Meyer said would be fixed, were exposed again on Saturday.
Room for Improvement
The Spartan no fly zone exposed a big problem this Buckeye program has, that they will only face when they play quality secondaries, but needs to be addressed none the less. The Buckeyes do not have a receiving force outside. Devin Smith is the only receiver who is built to play on the outside, but his route running is not very crisp, which makes him what Dontre Wilson was early in the season, a novelty. Philly Brown and Evan Spencer are slot receivers. Brown has the hands and speed to play on the outside, but not the size or ability to win a jump ball. Spencer is physical, but his hands are inconsistent, his speed is average, and is not great in jump ball situations.
To beat corners like the Spartans, Seminoles, and Crimson Tide all possess, the Buckeyes will need receivers who can create separation with their speed, physicality, and route running. They will also need a guy who the QB can trust in jump ball situations. Right now, I see Buckeye receivers who constantly catch balls with their bodies not their hands, tip off their routes, and lack the overall ability to beat good college corners. Michael Thomas will help to provide future Buckeye quarterbacks with a big time target on the outside. However, you can tell that Coach Meyer is searching for big targets on the outside with the recruitment of Noah Brown, as well as the several other receivers he has brought in since taking over the program.
The second part of this issue for the Buckeyes is solving the safety issue. Joshua Perry is pretty competent in coverage, which makes me more comfortable about the linebackers. I expect him to continue to improve in that are of his game with more game experience. Safety is the huge issue for the defense. Without Bryant, C.J. Barnett’s weaknesses in coverage continue to be magnified. Barnett and Brown are both nice safeties, but they do not excel in any area really well. Barnett is good in run support, but even Brown struggles there.
In my opinion, Vonn Bell is desperately needed at free safety. His instincts would be welcomed in the secondary, as well as his athleticism. The only game these safeties have gone out and played ball instead of constantly pressing, forcing, and thinking about everything was against Penn State. Barnett has the ability to play at a high level, but needs a competent counterpart in order to allow him to play at his full potential. I believe Bell provides him with that confidence better than Brown would.
These changes will not likely come by the bowl game. I would expect some improvement against Clemson, but Clemson’s quarterback Tajh Boyd as well as the best receiver in the nation, Sammy Watkins, are both licking their lips. The Buckeyes have a lot to get done in the next few weeks of practice.