Finally got back from Rutgers and now I’m home to write this week’s Ten Things. I’ve done so much driving this weekend that I don’t really remember what we learned. It’s a good thing I take copious notes, though. Ohio State went into Rutgers and dominated the Scarlet Knights exactly as they should have, and precisely how few truly expected them to do so. In the end, they were 56-0 victors and the Buckeyes had to work to keep it that close.
Since the Oklahoma loss, Ohio State has done what they needed to do, which was expected. Even though things are looking up, nobody is truly going to buy in until they can put a large number of points on the board against a quality opponent. And that finish line will be constantly moving, because if they do it against Penn State, then clearly Penn State’s defense wasn’t as good as we thought.
Anyway, let’s digress. What did we learn from an unnecessary night game?
1. Jerome Baker needs to get right.
For a player with All-American mention in the preseason, Jerome Baker has yet to look like an All-American. He doesn’t even look like the 2016 version of himself. Last season he was a step slow because he didn’t always know what he was doing. Being such a fantastic athlete, however, his “step slow” was right on time. Now, however, he’s maybe a step fast, which has him overrunning some plays. He is third on the team with 23 tackles, but eighth in solo tackles (12), behind guys like Tuf Borland, Erick Smith, Jordan Fuller, and Chris Worley. Yes, both of Ohio State’s middle linebackers have more solo tackles than OSU’s starting Will. Last season, only Raekwon McMillan had more solo tackles (49) than Baker (45). He is not yet a playmaker, and it is negatively affecting the entire defense.
2. Johnnie Dixon has gotten right.
Hoo, boy, this is the Johnnie Dixon that we assumed we were never going to see. His career was over, and even if it wasn’t, he was never going to be healthy or consistent enough to be a productive contributor to the Ohio State football program. But, boy, were you wrong! He is tied for the Big Ten lead with two receptions of at least 50 yards. He also leads the nation in average yards per catch (28.5). Whether or not you think the bubble screens can work against a good defense, what Dixon can do after the catch should translate regardless of the opponent.
3. Baron Browning might be the No. 2 middle linebacker now.
I don’t know if it means anything, but Baron Browning played quite a bit in this game, even in the first half. Tuf Borland got the start, but Browning rotated in pretty early on. Is Browning the new No. 2? Borland has leveled off since his “debut” against Army, which wasn’t unexpected. Chris Worley could have played against Rutgers, but they held him out one more week. Will they hold him out again this Saturday? If so, I expect Borland to start again, but keep an eye on how often you’ll see Browning involved.
4. Mike Weber is Ohio State’s red zone specialist.
Remember the issues the Buckeyes were having punching the ball in with J.K. Dobbins? I think you can consider those problems over now that Mike Weber is back. Ohio State was 3-for-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and all three scores belonged to Weber. The Buckeyes were in the bottom of the pack of the Big Ten in touchdown conversion percentage, but they are moving up toward the middle of the pack now. Weber’s power and vision make him an ideal guy inside the 20 because he can see seams, or carry tacklers an extra few yards — and in the red zone, every yard matters.
5. The wheel route stays undefeated.
Yeah, you saw a tremendous pass from Dwayne Haskins to Demario McCall for a touchdown on a wheel route, but that wasn’t the only wheel route they ran successfully. The Buckeyes are also basically using the wheel route as a defensive eraser. As the running back runs his route, a linebacker or two follows him, clearing out the middle of the field for a guy like Johnnie Dixon to operate. Or, as we saw against UNLV, you can have Parris Campbell running a drag route right in the vacated area for an easy completion and yardage.
6. J.T. can’t run like he used to, but he can still read very, very well.
J.T. Barrett was tremendous on the read plays once again. He was snatching the football back and heading upfield in an instant. He has never been Braxton Miller, but we do know he used to have the speed to go the distance. I don’t think that speed is still there, but everything else is. His 8.9 yards per rush against Rutgers was his best since…the last time Ohio State played Rutgers. Crap…maybe we haven’t learned anything.
7. Defensive tweaks are getting interesting.
Did you happen to notice Sam Hubbard and Chase Young getting some time at “middle linebacker” in this one? Previously, the fifth defensive linemen that the Buckeyes have used had only been on the line of scrimmage. Now, however, they moved him back into a blitzing linebacker type of role. It will be interesting to see how that progresses and how quarterbacks deal with it. Speaking of blitzing linebackers, with as dominating as the defensive line was in this game, sending linebackers was completely unfair. Expect the Buckeyes to continue to ramp up the blitzing.
8. Getting production from more receivers.
Parris Campbell had just one catch, and despite this minimal production from Ohio State’s top receiver, the Buckeyes still caught 19 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns. What that means is there are more receivers stepping up for OSU. We now know what Johnnie Dixon is capable of. We saw Binjimen Victor again use his size on a jump ball and his speed on a deep ball. He caught two passes for 69 yards and looked good doing it. Terry McLaurin almost had a quiet night with everything else going on in the passing game, but he still led the Buckeyes with five receptions.
9. The safeties are solidifying.
Even though Erick Smith wasn’t permitted to travel for this game, the safeties didn’t miss a beat against Rutgers. Jordan Fuller led the Buckeyes with eight tackles — with several of those those being the “big hit” variety. Fuller came to Ohio State as a cornerback, but he has turned into a physical safety with some tremendous range. Damon Webb only had one tackle, but he directed traffic well and also had an interception. He played about a half before giving way to the second unit. Fuller has started every game this season, so even though he is — or was — rotating with Erick Smith, the job has seemingly been Fuller’s from the outset. This might be the time where he takes advantage of the added opportunities and makes the most of them.
10. It’s amazing what can happen when OSU plays against man coverage.
After the game, I asked Urban Meyer if this was the most man coverage they had seen this season. He admitted that he hadn’t thought about it like that, but it probably was the most man coverage his team has seen. In case you missed it, it was also the best the Buckeyes had looked at the deep ball all season. I’ll have a deeper story on this angle on Monday, but I asked Johnnie Dixon and Binjimen Victor about seeing man coverage and they both told me it’s bad news for the defense when they seen man. They believe they are too talented — fast, athletic, etc — to be shut down via man coverage. The fact that the downfield game was so successful and prevalent the one time they faced an entire game of man coverage is not a coincidence. But yes, they will still have to do it against a very good defense before we’re all going to buy in.