Every year, Ohio State usually begins the season having to try and figure out what an opponent is going to do on offense and defense to combat the Buckeyes’ talent disadvantage. They know they’ll see some new and different things, and they also know they’ll see a few things they hadn’t planned on.
It is rare, however, when the unknowns lie in Ohio State’s favor. And for Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, it’s not a fun position to be in.
Everyone knows that the OSU football program is under new management with Ryan Day. He brought in a new quarterbacks coach — and a new quarterback — and two new defensive coordinators.
Some of the offense has been tweaked, but the entire defensive scheme has now been altered.
Ohio State showed some of those new looks in last week’s 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic, but didn’t have to go too deep into their playbook — on offense or defense.
There is still much more to come and Fickell knows it, he just doesn’t know yet what it is.
“I think defensively, it’s really difficult going into a game where you don’t know that they showed a whole lot,” he said of OSU’s defense. “You’re not really sure with a new coordinator and a new system. A little bit more of ‘hey what are they,’ what are they really gonna be and do defensively, because they probably didn’t have to do a whole lot or didn’t do a whole lot. But maybe that’s who they’ll be too. So I think defensively you’re probably a little more curious than you are offensively.”
The Buckeye defense held Florida Atlantic to negative yardage in the first half before giving up three drives of at least 65 yards in the second half. Even without showing much, Fickell saw a defense that could do plenty. Offensively, he saw much of what he’s always seen from the Ohio State offense.
Though he isn’t sure they really showed all that much either.
“I don’t know that they had to,” he said. “I don’t know if they did. You know, but it’s still similar to what they’ve done over the last couple years with coach Day there, so I don’t think you’re as curious, or ‘hey, what else do they have in their bag?’ As good as they’ve been over the last few years offensively, how much more can you do or how much more do you need to do?”
There is one big difference between last year’s offense and this year’s offense, of course, and that is quarterback Justin Fields.
The sophomore Fields got his first career start on Saturday and played well, completing 72% of his passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns, and rushing for 61 yards and another touchdown.
Any time you’re taking the field against a new starting quarterback, a defense is going to have questions. And Fields poses more problems than most.
“Well, I think that the run-pass option is always a big issue,” Fickell said. “I mean, when you see a guy throw deep ball to the field side, you know how strong his arm is. You see him take the first run for however far he had to go. So all the tools are obviously there, from the deep balls, to the field side stuff, to the ability to run.
“So where is he with the whole scheme? I’m sure that’s probably the bigger question for us, is do they have everything that they’ve done over the last three four or five years? Or do they have a little bit smaller of a package just based on him in his first game and in first year there?”
Ohio State gets to enter the game on Saturday being the mystery team for a change. They have the unknowns and they are providing the questions.
How well Cincinnati answers those questions will decide the game on Saturday.