Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Navy Midshipmen Complete Game Preview
Even before Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury, Ohio State's season opener with Navy was hardly viewed as a warmup game for the Buckeyes. The Midshipmen's triple-option offensive attack is certainly a unique challenge for any opposing defense and one unlike any other on Ohio State's 2014 schedule.
Throw in redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett making his first career start at quarterback for the Buckeyes, and this weekend's Ohio State-Navy showdown has all of the makings of one of the most intriguing matchups of college football's opening weekend. Playing away from the friendly confines of Ohio Stadium doesn't bode well for the Buckeyes either, as the Midshipmen will serve as the host team in Baltimore for this weekend's game.
Add it all together, and Ohio State faces its most uncertainty in a season opener since perhaps 2002, when the Buckeyes welcomed Kliff Kingsbury's Texas Tech squad into Columbus. Led by a freshman running back named Maurice Clarett, that proved to be the start of a magical run for Ohio State, which ended with the Buckeyes hoisting the crystal ball in Tempe, Arizona.
Will another freshman step to the forefront this weekend and ease the mounting concern in Columbus this year? Only time will tell. But until then, here's everything you need to know about Ohio State's matchup with Navy:
Date: Saturday, Aug. 30
Time: 12:00 p.m. ET
Place: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Ohio State (-14) Vegas Insider.
Ohio State Keys to Victory
This may seem like an obvious key to victory—any team trying to win a football game is going to attempt to minimize its mistakes. But with a freshman quarterback receiving the first start of his college career—and on the road nonetheless—it only becomes more imperative for Ohio State to cut down on errors like allowing big gains and turning the ball over.
Don't believe me?
The last time a Buckeyes freshman started at quarterback in a season opener was in 1978, when Art Schlichter got the nod for Ohio State against Penn State. The now notorious signal-caller's college career got off to a rocky start to say the least, as Schlichter threw five interceptions in what was a 19-0 Nittany Lions victory.
That may have been 36 seasons ago, but Barrett's inexperience remains an obvious concern for the Buckeyes heading into their season opener. Expect for Ohio State to do everything it can to put Barrett in positive positions, as it no longer has Miller's legs to bail it out of the negative ones.
"Him being a young guy and not having a lot of experience, we just have to make him look better," Buckeyes left tackle Taylor Decker said of Barrett on Monday. "The line has to play that much harder to protect him, the receivers have to make plays until he gets comfortable."
Run The Ball
One way that Ohio State may be able to alleviate pressure from their young signal-caller is with the sizable advantage that the Buckeyes hold on their offensive line. Navy's three starting defensive linemen and two edge-rushers weigh an average of 247.6 pounds, while Ohio State's projected offensive line combines for an average of 303.4 pounds.
That should help open lanes for a talented Buckeyes backfield, although Ohio State's running backs are almost as unproven as its new starting quarterback. After recovering from offseason wrist surgery, true sophomore Ezekiel Elliott is in line for the first start of his college career, as he'll headline a talented stable including fifth-year senior Rod Smith, true freshman Curtis Samuel and redshirt sophomore Bri'onte Dunn.
Given the Buckeyes' preference to keep the ball out of Barrett's hands, look for the handoff to become a prominent part of his repertoire on Saturday. If Ohio State can run the ball effectively, that would certainly bode well for the Buckeyes as they attempt to keep the ball away from the Midshipmen's talented triple-option attack.
Navy Keys to Victory
While Ohio State may hold a noticeable advantage in the trenches, don't count out Navy's ability to apply pressure against an offensive line that is replacing four multiyear starters from a season ago. It also won't hurt the Midshipmen's cause that they run a unique 3-4 defensive scheme, which will prevent the Buckeyes offensive front five from doing what it does best.
"The way they play, they play so you can't get your double-teams and that's what we love," Decker said. "When we run the ball, we love our double-team blocks. That's what we take pride in."
While the Midshipmen's scheme may disrupt Ohio State's run game, it could also affect the Buckeyes' passing approach, where every split-second will prove to be valuable to OSU's freshman quarterback. If Navy can consistently apply pressure to Barrett, then the Buckeyes will be in for a long day, as their young quarterback will need to be counted on to make a big play at some point in time on Saturday.
Get a Lead
Perhaps the only situation that could be more daunting for Barrett than making the first start of his college career on the road could be doing so and playing from behind. With Ohio State unsure of what it has on the offensive side of the ball, it would certainly serve Navy well to take an early lead and make Barrett and the Buckeyes play catch up.
Even if the Midshipmen can force Ohio State into a shootout, that would favor Navy as well. The more plays Barrett is forced to make on Saturday, the more successful of a day it will likely be for the Midshipmen.
With the quarterback competition between Barrett and backup Cardale Jones deemed "close" by Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, pressure will only mount with each mistake made by either signal-caller. Playing from behind would only increase that pressure on Ohio State's inexperienced quarterbacks, and it will be up to Navy to first put them in that position.
Ohio State Players to Watch
If you can't already tell from this preview, a lot of Ohio State's—and Navy's—potential success is going to come down to Barrett, and what he's capable of in his first college start. Considering that he hasn't started in an actual game since Oct. 5, 2012, there is certainly a lot of unknown that comes along with the Wichita Falls, Texas, native, who Meyer has referred to as "Guiton-ish," in a nod to former Buckeyes backup Kenny Guiton.
Barrett's teammates appear to have faith in him as well, with several complimenting his poise and maturity, despite his inexperience. Even before Miller went down, Barrett's offseason growth was apparent, but now it will be put to the test sooner than anyone expected it to.
"You could kind of tell from the beginning of camp that he was trying to work on his maturity and leadership as a young player," senior wide receiver Evan Spencer said of Barrett. "After Braxton went down in practice, I think he realized pretty quickly that it was time to take a leadership role. In the huddle from then on, when he was in practice, he was just making sure that he was keeping people going."
Although the Buckeyes received season-altering news a week ago, they've managed to maintain a quiet confidence about themselves and the 2014 campaign since Miller was ruled out for the entire season. A big part of that has been the potential of Barrett, and Saturday will provide the redshirt freshman with his first opportunity to allow his actions to speak louder than his teammates' words.
Having successfully fended off freshman phenom Raekwon McMillan for the right to be the Buckeye starting middle linebacker, Curtis Grant now finds himself as one of the most important pieces of Ohio State’s defense. It won’t take long for Grant to get a chance to prove his worth to the Buckeyes this season, as he’ll be making several key reads against the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense.
That may have been a daunting task a year ago, when the Richmond, Virginia, native again failed to live up to the 5-star hype that accompanied him to Columbus in 2011. But his progress this offseason has consistently been praised by the Ohio State coaching staff, so much so that he was named a captain for the Buckeyes heading into his senior season.
“That's one of the great things about what we do for a living is to see young people grow up,” Meyer said. “Boy, has Curtis Grant done a nice job.”
While Grant will likely rotate with McMillan in the opener, his experience will be counted on against such a complicated offense. If like Barrett, Grant can live up to the hype on Saturday, that would bode well for the Buckeyes, as the senior captain will attempt to help set the tone against the Midshipmen.
Navy Players to Watch
Entering his junior season at Navy, many believe that Keenan Reynolds could be one of the best to ever play for the Midshipmen, and his numbers certainly don’t hurt his case.
In 13 games a season ago, the 5’11”, 195-pounder proved efficient both in the air and on the ground, throwing for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns, while rushing for 1,346 yards and 31 more scores. Reynolds’ eye-popping numbers have caught the attention of Meyer, who has expressed his admiration for the Navy signal-caller.
“I'm a big fan of his,” Meyer said. “The Navy coaches and some people I've talked to think that he's the best that they've ever had, which takes your breath away a little bit.”
If the Midshipmen are going to pull off the upset over the Buckeyes, it will be on the legs of Reynolds, as Ohio State has struggled with mobile quarterbacks in recent years. The Buckeyes’ new defensive scheme places on emphasis on stopping the pass, so it will be interesting to see what kind of damage Reynolds will be able to inflict with his legs on Saturday.
If Navy is to pull off the upset, special teams will likely also come into play, as it’s hard to imagine the Midshipmen blowing out the Buckeyes. That means that kicker Nick Sloan could be counted on to make some crucial kicks in what could ultimately be a close game between the two teams.
A junior entering his third season as Navy’s starting kicker, Sloan converted on 11 of his 14 field-goal attempts for the Midshipment a season ago. With Ohio State breaking in a new kicker in either walk-on Kyle Clinton or true freshman Sean Nuernberger, Navy holds the special teams edge in Saturday’s contest, which could mean more than many people realize.
What They're Saying
As stated earlier, Ohio State has maintained a quiet confidence since Miller went down a week ago. Meyer has praised the Buckeyes for the way that they have practiced in the absence of their starting quarterback and is far from one of the many believing that all is lost in Columbus heading into the 2014 campaign.
“I think we're pretty ready. I like where we're at, especially after today's practice, and I like how they responded to Braxton's injury. So I think we're pretty ready.”
With Navy presenting such a unique task, Meyer admitted that game preparations have been a bit different for the Buckeyes this week. The two-time national champion head coach also hasn’t been afraid to ask for help when it comes to approaching the triple-option, which Ohio State never faced in his first two seasons at the helm of the program.
“I've been working through that, talked to some people that have coached in these situations as a head coach. I don't believe I've been in this situation facing a team quite like this. I talked to about two or three of my colleagues who have been in this situation, and there are some things, game management areas where we're going to adjust a little bit.”
From a Navy standpoint, Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo admitted to The Washington Post that he has high hopes for the 2014 season. That will all start with his team’s matchup with the Buckeyes, where Navy will have the chance to accomplish an upset for the ages.
“It’s that time of the year where I think every team starts with a lot of optimism and hope,” Niumatalolo said. “But I don’t know in all of my years of coaching if I’ve ever been as excited about a season, about a team, about a group of young men than I have this year.”
While Barrett may be talented and redshirt freshmen have dominated the college football landscape for the past two seasons, I find it hard to believe that Barrett will be capable of leading the Buckeyes to a comfortable victory in the first start of his college career. Navy is more than formidable foe that presents unique challenges on both sides of the ball, and even with Miller in the lineup, I think that this would have been a tough opener for Ohio State to dominate.
I still see the Buckeyes starting the season with a 1-0 record to their credit, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if this game is tied heading into the fourth quarter. That would certainly put Barrett’s poise to the test, especially on the road and against a quality opponent.
I don’t see this game being quite that close, but I do think the Buckeyes will have to put in a significant effort in the second half to escape the Charm City with a win. Ohio State’s size on both lines will ultimately be the difference, and I wouldn’t rule out a breakout game from sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson.
Ultimately, I expect talent to win out, and Ohio State simply has more of it. That won’t stop some early -ame nerves from getting in the way, however, as the Buckeyes will need to play full 60 minutes to walk away with a victory.
Final score: Ohio State 30, Navy 20.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.