Ohio State coaches devote plenty of time scouting opponents through the year, but having an open date on the schedule last week gave them a chance to scout themselves.
Their goal was to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses at the midpoint of the season and figure out what’s working and what’s not. And it doesn’t take an advanced football mind to pinpoint a few areas that need to be addressed and highlight others that are purring along just fine.
Two are better than one: The Buckeyes wouldn’t be 6-0 and in the national title picture without having a dynamic quarterback in Braxton Miller. But he can expect a quick hook if he has another three-turnover game as he did against Northwestern.
He was intercepted once when his arm was hit while going forward by the Wildcats’ Ifeadi Odenigbo (a Centerville product), and he also lost two fumbles.
Coach Urban Meyer had backup Kenny Guiton start to warm up in the third quarter but kept him on the sidelines, which turned out to be a wise move. Not only did Miller find his game, but the Buckeyes would have had a full-fledged quarterback controversy if Meyer had pulled his one-time Heisman Trophy candidate.
Guiton, who replaced the injured Miller for three games earlier in the season, is still tied for the Big Ten lead with 13 touchdown passes. And the Buckeyes want to give the fifth-year senior more snaps — though preferably not in a crisis situation.
“The interception was certainly no fault of his,” said offensive coordinator Tom Herman, assessing Miller’s play at Northwestern. “The fumbles were a concern, obviously. I think he missed a couple reads early, but nothing terrible.
“The thing I was most proud of was every coach on the sideline was telling me his demeanor was great. He was still talking and active and involved. He was great with me on the headset. That told me we maybe had crossed one hurdle from last year. When things started to go south a little bit, his demeanor would change, and he’d wear his emotions on his sleeve.
“I think he did an excellent job of keeping his chin up, his chest out and making sure his teammates around him knew, ‘Hey, I screwed up but I’ll get it back. We’ll be all right.’ “
Ready for any challenge: The offensive line certainly has earned respect after a string of dominating performances. The Buckeyes are 12th in the nation in rushing, and as Meyer pointed out, they’ve done that with All-Big Ten running back Carlos Hyde sitting out three games.
“They block people,” Meyer said. “The first game was disappointing (a so-so performance against Buffalo), but since then, they’ve played pretty good. They’re who we are on offense, and that’s a good place to start.”
D-line upgrade: The Buckeyes had to replace their front four from last year, but the new bunch may be even more disruptive.
Freshman Joey Bosa has been unblockable at times, getting two sacks and recovering a fumble for a TD at Northwestern. He was one of the nation’s top recruits, but Meyer didn’t expect so much production from the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Floridian.
“He’s an impact player. I’ve never really had a freshman D-lineman (do that). Usually, you have a cornerback or receiver or even a running back step in and play,” Meyer said.
“He’s just so strong. He ‘torques’ people. He benches 225 pounds 30 times — some crazy number. And he uses it. Some guys are real strong and never use it.”
Progress not perfection: The Buckeyes have gotten markedly better in the passing game in Meyer’s two years, going from 115th nationally in 2011 (out of 120 teams) to 101st last season and 85th this year.
Still, their average of 212.2 yards isn’t anywhere close to meeting the staff’s expectations.
“We’ve got to get the ball to our receivers on the run a little more,” Herman said. “I don’t know if we’ve got a guy who can catch a hitch (route), make a defender miss and take it 80. But we’ve got guys who, in the short and intermediate pass game, if we can get them the ball on the run, we can get more yards there.”
Explosiveness lacking: Meyer and his assistants have elevated the talent level. But the 2013 recruiting class was loaded with speedy playmakers, and the Buckeyes haven’t gotten major contributions from them yet.
Hybrid back Dontre Wilson has shown flashes, but he didn’t play on offense against Northwestern. Running back Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t been able to nudge ahead of proven veterans. And receiver Jalin Marshall of Middletown missed several preseason practices with a concussion and appears likely to redshirt.
Wilson is averaging 9.5 yards on 26 touches (15 rushes, 11 receptions), but opponents have begun keying on him, knowing he’ll probably get the ball anytime he enters the game.
“It was starting to get to the point in the third, fourth or fifth weeks of the season where he’d run on the field, and the defense would go, ‘There’s No. 1, watch No. 1.’ And you watched defenses change,” Herman said.
“He needs to be able to play on downs (and bring value to the team) when he’s not getting the football. And, hopefully, that will draw less attention to him when we do try to get him the ball.”
Pass-ive defense: The Buckeyes are ranked 76th in the nation in passing yards allowed at 240 per game. And they haven’t found a replacement yet for dependable safety Christian Bryant, who is out with a season-ending ankle injury.
The defense has performed better than anyone expected after losing eight starters — particularly against the rush. But the Buckeyes still need more from their DBs.
“We’ve made a conscious decision to stop the run. As a result, sometimes you leave people on islands (in one-on-one coverage) and sometimes you don’t have the same focus on the back end,” Meyer said. “That’s who we are. We’ve won a lot of games doing that. Now, we’ve got to improve the other end of it.
“We’re working as a staff very hard at it. And we have an excellent staff, so we’ll get it done.”
Ohio State’s remaining schedule
Date Opponent Record* Sagarin rating* Scouting report
Sat. IOWA 4-2 45 Improved from last year’s 4-8 slide but not back to Big Ten title levels of 2004 and ‘02
Oct. 26 PENN STATE 3-2 48 A 44-24 loss at Indiana is troubling after last year’s surprising 8-4 finish
Nov. 2 Purdue 1-4 114 Coach Darrell Hazell, an ex-Ohio State assistant, in midst of major rebuilding job
Nov. 16 Illinois 3-2 64 After last year’s 2-10 debacle, second-year coach Tim Beckman still on hot seat
Nov. 23 INDIANA 3-2 50 Offense strong with WR Cody Latimer, a Jefferson grad, now a big-play threat
Nov. 30 Michigan 5-0 30 Wolverines are title contenders if QB Devin Gardner can limit turnovers
HOME GAMES IN CAPS
*Going into Saturday’s games
Ohio State vs. Iowa, 3:30 p.m., ABC, 1410