I got to talk to Gene Ross of Land Grant Holy Land this week to learn how they feel about Ohio State coming into the National Championship game. Obviously, there’s a lot of optimism after that dismantling of Clemson last week.
1) We’ll start with more high-level talk. From an outsider’s perspective, I’ve felt like Ryan Day took what Urban Meyer had built at Ohio State, started recruiting even better, and stopped losing one inexplicable game per year. In other words, he’s been phenomenal. What have you guys thought about him, especially compared to Urban Meyer? And do you think he’s going to be there long term?
You pretty much nailed the general story arc right on the head. Ryan Day did not miss a beat taking over for Urban Meyer. Towards the end of his coaching career, it felt like Meyer’s in-game schemes got a little stale, and his unwillingness to make adjustments lost them weird games against teams like Iowa and Purdue. Day is an excellent play-caller and motivator, and he has his guys ready to play each and every time they take the field while getting the most out of all of his players.
As you touched on, his recruiting has somehow been even better than that of Meyer’s. Securing what will likely finish as the No. 2 class in 2021, he is already off to a blazing start in 2022 — a class that includes the nation’s No. 1 QB in Quinn Ewers. Ohio State fans could not be happier with the way Day has led this team both on and off the field. His efforts in joining his players in calls for social justice did not go unnoticed, and he seems like a real genuine dude. He and his family really love Columbus, and I don’t expect to see him leave anytime soon.
2) Man, you guys eviscerated Clemson. We all knew Clemson had a few holes that could be exploited (namely, the secondary), but nobody expected that. Especially after some of the more... uninspired... performances from the Buckeyes so far this year. Us Alabama fans are holding out hope that the Buckeyes spent all of their emotional energy one game too early, and won’t come out quite as hot in the Championship. Is there any underlying fear for you guys that that might be the case?
I’d be lying to you if I told you that win over Clemson didn’t feel especially great given both what happened in last year’s game and all the crap Dabo Swinney talked leading up to this year’s matchup. I certainly didn’t see that type of performance coming, as I picked Ohio State to win the game but only by a few points — and that was me being optimistic. The Buckeyes haven’t exactly looked stellar all season, no thanks to not being able to find a rhythm with numerous COVID cancellations, but that was by far their best performance.
I do worry a bit about the emotional toll a game like that could take on the team. Ohio State has been preparing for that Clemson rematch specifically all season long. The score of last year’s game was hanging in the weight room since the beginning of the offseason, and now that they have avenged their loss, they have to come back and take on the No. 1 team in the country. As I said before, Ryan Day is no slouch when it comes to motivation, and it isn’t exactly hard to get excited to play for a national title. However, I can’t see the Buckeyes having quite the same amount of fire like they did against the Tigers given the circumstances of the Sugar Bowl.
3) Everyone talks about Chris Olave as Ohio State’s superstar receiver, but Garrett Wilson has more yards on the year. What can you tell us about him and his game? And if Alabama manages to lock down those two guys with their main cornerbacks, who does Justin Fields start passing to to pick up the slack?
Olave and Wilson are Ohio State’s tag-team duo. Olave was a diamond in the rough prospect, coming to Columbus as a three-star recruit and having his breakout performance as a freshman with a two-TD performance against Michigan in 2018 before becoming the Buckeyes’ leading receiver in 2019. He is an incredibly fast and smooth route runner with great hands, and he is Fields’ favorite deep threat.
Wilson was quite the opposite, coming to Ohio State as a five-star prospect out of Texas and making a big impact right away as a freshman in 2019. Transitioning to the slot this season, Wilson has been a nightmare for opposing DBs. Trying to cover him one-on-one with a linebacker or safety is a losing proposition, as he is far too quick and intelligent for those guys to stick with him. Wilson can beat you deep as well, but he is a more consistent target at midrange with the sturdiest hands on the team.
Outside of those two, we saw the Buckeyes go to their tight ends in the passing game a lot against Clemson. Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert have been used more for their blocking this season, but they are both very talented pass-catchers as well. The wide receiver room also features Jameson Williams — likely the fastest player on the team — as well as a pair of five-star freshmen in Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming who have all made some great plays this year.
4) Trey Sermon is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, which is just kinda nutty. What makes him so good? And when he has to take a rest, is Master Teague a real threat?
Funny enough, there was a point this season where Ohio State fans were asking if Trey Sermon even deserved to still be getting carries. Master Teague was the team’s lead back, and Sermon just did not look comfortable learning a new offense and recovering from the ACL injury he sustained when he was at Oklahoma. Neither guy was anywhere near what J.K. Dobbins was, but Teague was the better of the two at the start of the year. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, whatever version of Trey Sermon that was is now dead and gone.
In his last two games, Sermon has ran for 524 yards on 60 carries (8.7 yards per attempt) — a postseason stretch reminiscent of Ezekiel Elliott in 2014. Seemingly out of nowhere, Sermon is running strong and hitting the holes with authority. He has been aided by what is a tremendously talented offensive line, but once into the second level he is bullying defenders with his strength and agility. He is running like a man possessed, and it is one of the more crazy in-season improvements I have ever seen by a player at Ohio State.
Teague actually went down early with a concussion against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, and didn’t play at all against Clemson as a result. It is unclear if he will be available against Alabama, but freshman Miyan Williams spelled Sermon briefly against the Tigers, and the 5-foot-8, 227-pound freshman affectionately known as “Meatball” looked very strong in his limited carries.
5) The Ohio State defense is giving up over 280 passing yards per game. While some of the rate stats aren’t quite as bad, that’s still a lot of production against what should be an elite defense. Are there actually some weaknesses Alabama could look to exploit there, or is it just raw yardage as a result of other teams playing from behind in garbage time?
Ohio State’s passing defense has not been great this year. Their worst game by far was against Indiana, where they allowed Michael Penix to throw for 491 yards in a game where the Buckeyes led 35-7 and wound up winning only 42-35. Shaun Wade was supposed to be the next first-round corner to come out of Columbus, but he has been lackluster to say the least this season. Overall, the secondary has missed guys like Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller — all of whom are now starting in the NFL.
However, Ohio State did make some personnel and scheme changes against Clemson, and while Trevor Lawrence still threw for 400 yards, it took him 48 attempts to do so and they held the Tigers to 28 points in the game. Nobody is stopping DeVonta Smith, and I expect him to get his against this Buckeyes secondary. However, if they can do enough to slow down all of the guys around him, they can play well enough to still put together a fine defensive effort.
6) Gone are the days of a single dude dominating the sack stats like Chase Young or Nick Bosa. Instead, Ohio State has a whole legion of guys in the 3-4 sack range this season. Where do they get pressure from, and how does defensive coordinator Greg Schiano like to scheme up pressure?
*I have no idea why I had a 2-year brain fart and said Schiano was still the DC...
Well Schiano is long gone, having taken the job as Rutgers’ head coach prior to this season. Ryan Day kicked him off the staff almost immediately upon taking over the OSU job, as Schiano’s defense the year prior in 2018 was just dreadful. Last year’s defensive coordinator, Jeff Hafley, is also now gone, taking over as the head coach of Boston College in the offseason. This brings us now to Kerry Coombs, who was previously Ohio State’s defensive backs coach before a stint in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. He now returns as the defensive coordinator, and he has done a respectable job.
It is strange to see Ohio State’s D-line without a true star, but they have been able to get pressure by committee this season. The best part of the Buckeyes’ D-line has actually been the defensive tackles, where Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett have been superstars both in stopping the run and pressuring opposing QBs up the middle. The rotation on the outside has been strong as well, led mostly by Jonathon Cooper and Tyreke Smith. Unfortunately, rumor has it this is the position group hit hard by COVID-19 this week, and it is unclear who will be out against Alabama. Defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday both missed the Clemson game, and there is likely even more guys who will be out against the Tide.
In terms of pressure, Ohio State doesn’t blitz a ton. They have done most of their work only rushing four, and they’ll occasionally send an extra linebacker or a corner blitz. The Buckeyes’ defensive scheme is pretty simple, running a standard 4-3 on early downs and switching to more of a nickel package on obvious passing downs. We saw this nickel package a lot against a pass-heavy team like Clemson, and I expect to see it a bunch again against Alabama.
7) The game comes down to a 48-yard field goal attempt to win it. Does Ohio State’s kicker win it all for you?
Probably not. If Blake Haubeil was healthy I’d say unequivocally yes, as he has been extremely consistent for Ohio State throughout his career, but he has battled a groin injury for most of the season and hasn’t quite been able to get back to 100%. There is also a chance Haubeil misses this game whether that be due to COVID-19 protocols or injury, and if that is the case the backups are a freshman and a walk-on. The Buckeyes are probably not going to be looking to kick many long field goals in this one if they can help it.
8) Have there been any true freshman really stand out this year that are looking to be surefire superstars and win awards in the next couple of years?
A couple of freshman have really popped for Ohio State this season. On offense, the pair of five-star receivers in Smith-Njigba and Fleming have both gotten their fair share of snaps in the rotation, with Smith-Njigba making a dazzling touchdown catch in the back of the end zone earlier this season. We also got to see five-star OT Paris Johnson Jr. come in after a few injuries last game and slide in at guard, pancaking his assignment on one of his first snaps. All of those guys will be key players next year for sure.
On defense, we have seen freshman DB Lathan Ransom come on late in the year. After playing in just three game, Ransom was one of the guys we saw in Ohio State’s new personnel groupings against Clemson, lining up as the slot corner in the nickel package despite being listed as a safety. The Buckeyes have been looking for playmakers to step up in the secondary, and he could be that guy moving forward.
9) How do you predict this game goes?
I think this game is a shoot-out. Nick Saban said it himself this year that good offense beats good defense in today’s college football, and these are two of the country’s premier offenses. I think Ohio State has to play damn near perfect to win this game, much like they did last time out against Clemson. They cannot afford to turn the ball over or have many quick three-and-outs against Alabama, as I don’t expect the Tide to make many mistakes when they have the ball.
There are clearly some COVID issues at OSU right now, and we won’t know for certain who will be out until late Monday afternoon, but I am concerned about the defensive line depth. Against a great passing team like Alabama, losing that all important pass-rush could be a deciding factor in the game. I’m hoping that isn’t the case, as obviously having both teams at full strength provides the best on-field product, but the Buckeyes will just have to employ a next-man-up mentality if they are indeed shorthanded.
I’ve gone back and forth on this game. Before they dominated Clemson I wouldn’t have even given them a chance against Alabama, but I do think they can beat anyone in the country if Justin Fields and the offense play like they did against the Tigers. I don’t think Fields’ ribs are all that much of a concern, and I think he ends his Ohio State career with a statement game that somewhat matches his performance last time out. For this reason, I think Ohio State comes away with a narrow 45-42 victory in an all-time classic battle.
I would not be at all surprised to see the Crimson Tide win this game, as I have predicted since the beginning of the year that they would be the ones to hoist the trophy when all is said and done. I do think Alabama is the best team in the country, but I think the Buckeyes could ride some of their momentum to an upset win in the title game. Regardless of what happens, I am excited to watch this matchup between two of the nation’s top programs as they fight it out on the biggest stage.
10) I’m actually stealing this from the Notre Dame blogger I talked to last week: What are your top 3 favorite names on Ohio State’s roster?
This is an easy one:
1) Sevyn Banks — thankfully he changed to No. 7 this season.
2) Master Teague — just a phenomenal football name.
3) Tuf Borland — he isn’t Ohio State’s best player by any stretch, but if you name your kid Tuf he was basically born to play linebacker.
Honorable mentions: Steele Chambers, Lejond Cavasos, Enokk Vimahi