Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Virginia Tech Hokies Complete Game Preview
After escaping its season opener in Baltimore with a closer-than-the-final-score-indicated 34-17 win over Navy, the Ohio State football team heads home to Columbus for one of its premiere games of the 2014 season.
Virginia Tech may not be of the Michael Vick/Bryan Randall/Tyrod Taylor variety this season, but as an opponent from the ACC, the Hokies do possess perhaps the most talent the Buckeyes will face until they begin Big Ten play. Add in that Ohio State itself still faces several questions following its meeting with the Midshipmen, and the intrigue of this Saturday's game in Ohio Stadium is obvious.
How will redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett fare in the second start of his college career? What will Virginia Tech look like against a big-time Division I program after beating subdivision opponent William & Mary last weekend? How will Ohio State's revamped pass defense perform against the Hokies' pass-heavy offense?
All of these questions—and more—will be answered on Saturday, when two power conference teams meet in what could be a season-defining game for each. Until then, here's everything you need to know heading into the Buckeyes' prime-time matchup with Virginia Tech.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 6
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio
Spread: Ohio State (-11), via Odds Shark
Ohio State Keys to Victory
Block For Barrett
While Barrett performed admirably, albeit not spectacularly, in his college debut in the Charm City on Saturday, the redshirt freshman was hardly aided by his offensive line. After the game, Urban Meyer admitted that the spotty play of the Buckeyes front five affected the team's play-calling and ultimately led to a more conservative approach throughout the contest.
"We wanted to open it up a little bit more in the first half, and we didn't. It wasn't because of [Barrett], it was because with our offensive line, we had a couple of mistakes in there, some penalties, a sack," the third-year Ohio State head coach said. "Obviously with the team we have playing next, we have a lot of work to do."
Facing Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's aggressive defense, it will only be more imperative that Ohio State finds a way to keep its inexperienced quarterback standing upright on Saturday. The Hokies tallied four sacks in their season opener against the Tribe, two of which came by way of linebacker Chase Williams, which is indicative of the type of pressure that Virginia Tech will look to apply to Barrett in Columbus.
Ignite The Atmosphere
Since arriving at Ohio State in 2012, Meyer has begged for the Buckeyes to play more home night games, a request that has been well received by OSU's schedule-makers. This season, the Buckeyes will play at least three games under the lights of Ohio Stadium—the most ever in a single season in Columbus.
Meyer's preference to play at night is two-fold, as it gives prospects visiting from out of town more time to arrive and enjoy campus and also makes for a better atmosphere inside The Horseshoe. That's been evident in the three night games at Ohio Stadium that the Buckeyes have already played under Meyer, three wins that twice saw Ohio State reach 60 points.
In 2012, the Buckeyes' 63-38 win over Nebraska was witnessed by 106,102 fans, an attendance record that could be in jeopardy this coming weekend. As we've seen for the past two seasons, Ohio State's players have a way of feeding off of the stadium's electricity, which could spell trouble for the Hokies if the Buckeyes gain an early advantage.
Add in that Ohio State will be hosting a plethora of talented prospects, including 5-star quarterback Torrance Gibson, 5-star defensive end Josh Sweat and 5-star running back Damien Harris, and a big performance from the Buckeyes could have far-reaching implications in Columbus. That could all start with the crowd, as it's been noticeably more impressive when given more time to, um, prepare.
Virginia Tech Keys to Victory
In his first 26 years at the helm of the Virginia Tech program, head coach Frank Beamer has found success with the notorious Beamer Ball, an approach that places emphasis on making big plays on offense, defense and, most importantly, special teams. Blocked kicks, big kick returns and defensive touchdowns were the norm during the height of the Hokies' success, which included five conference championships from 1999-2008.
Meyer himself knows a thing or two about Beamer Ball, which he said he studied extensively as the special teams coordinator at Notre Dame in the late '90s.
"Beamer Ball is something that's been around for a long time. And I would like to think we've patterned ourselves after that ever since whenever that was, 1999, I think," Meyer said. "That's when my appreciation for special teams and then I see what Virginia Tech did for so many years."
While Virginia Tech has recently endured a departure from Beamer Ball—the Hokies have accumulated a combined 15-11 record in the past two seasons—its primary chance of beating the Buckeyes would come from getting back to its old ways. Considering that Ohio State hasn't lost on its home turf since 2011 or at night in Columbus since 2009, it's going to take big plays in all three facets of the game for the Hokies to score the upset and return to college football's national scene.
Guard The Ground
With an inexperienced quarterback playing behind an unproven offensive line, the more plays that Virginia Tech can force Barrett to make, the better off the Hokies will be on Saturday. That's why it will be key for Virginia Tech to successfully defend the Ohio State run game, which is admittedly without a feature back at this point in the season.
A total of six players carried the ball for the Buckeyes against Navy, with Barrett leading the way with 50 yards and wide receiver/running back hybrids Dontre Wilson (43) and Jalin Marshall (7) combining for 50 of their own. Running backs Ezekiel Elliott (44), Curtis Samuel (45) and Rod Smith (6) also received carries, helping bring Ohio State's rushing total to 194 yards.
Especially against a less-talented Navy team, that number certainly left a lot to be desired, as neither Elliott, Samuel nor Smith appeared to grab hold of the Buckeyes' starting running back spot. On Monday, Meyer admitted that not one Ohio State running back seemed to separate himself, something which he viewed as a positive from the Buckeyes' opener.
"Last year we had a guy that was a 20-, 25-carry guy," Meyer said, referencing Carlos Hyde. "We have some pretty capable players. We also don't have that body type to go just slam it in there so many times.
"Jalin earned some carries and Donte certainly has. You have [Elliott] and you have Curtis Samuel—all these guys earning these carries. And so it's probably going to be like that again this week, just because these young guys have earned these carries."
But if none of Ohio State's backfield options prove effective, that could ultimately leave the game to be decided by Barrett. That's a tall task for a quarterback in the second game of his college career, in front of what could be a record-setting crowd and a national TV audience.
Ohio State Players to Watch
Although Meyer professed admiration for both the opponent and atmosphere of last Saturday's game, he also admitted that it wasn't the ideal opener for a few of his players. Most notably, it was an odd game for the Ohio State defensive line, where defensive end Joey Bosa was forced to pass on doing what he does best thanks to the Midshipmen's triple-option offense.
"Joey Bosa didn't come to Ohio State to squeeze down blocks and keep people off his ankles. That's what he had to do last week," Meyer said. "He came to rush a quarterback."
The sophomore defensive end will get plenty of opportunities to do just that this Saturday, when he lines up across from a Virginia Tech offense that attempted 31 passes in its season opener. Along with arguably the most talented defensive line in the country, it will be up to Bosa to apply pressure to Hokies quarterback and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, who threw for 251 yards and two touchdowns in his Virginia Tech debut.
With defensive coordinator Chris Ash's revamped Ohio State passing defense facing its first true test of the season, a steady pass rush would go a long way toward alleviating pressure from the now-pressing Buckeye cornerbacks. That starts with Bosa, who Meyer recently said is as good as any defensive end in the country.
Until we know what the Buckeyes have in Barrett, expect for Braxton Miller's replacement to continually wind up on this list. While Ohio State will do all that it can to make life easier for its quarterback, it still remains the most important position on the field—especially in Meyer's spread offense.
As he did with Miller two seasons ago, look for Meyer to continually add responsibilities to Barrett's game plan with each passing week. Against Navy, Barrett was rarely asked to do more than make shorter and safer throws, with the two exceptions resulting in a red-zone interception and an 80-yard touchdown to Devin Smith.
That could change this week, as last week Meyer was trying to make the most of a first-time starting quarterback playing against a gimmicky 3-4 defense. But while the Hokies' defensive approach is more straightforward, that won't make it easier to attack, although Barrett should have more plays to work with in his second start.
"We'll expand a little bit," Meyer said. "They're not overly complicated. They just play very, very hard. Yes, we will keep giving him more and more."
How Barrett handles his expanded playbook could go a long way toward determining how the Buckeyes will handle the Hokies. He may not possess the big-play ability of Miller, but Barrett did display precision as a passer, which should only aid him as his role in the OSU offense grows.
Virginia Tech Players to Watch
Like Barrett, Brewer wasn't asked to do much in his team's season opener, as his 23 of 30 passing performance equated to an 8.37 yards-per-attempt average. Take into account the lower level of competition that the Hokies were facing and it becomes even harder to take much stock in Brewer's Hokies debut, which also saw the junior rush for 21 yards on three attempts.
It will take a stronger effort for Brewer to get the job done in Columbus, which is something the Virginia Tech signal-caller is well aware of. Often times, teams see their biggest improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, which is why Brewer is just fine with himself and the Hokies not displaying their full potential against William & Mary.
"We shouldn't be where we want to be," Brewer said, via Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times. "You have to have that gradual climb week-to-week."
Given the atmosphere he's heading into, it's going to take more than a "gradual climb" for the Hokies to walk away with a win in Columbus on Saturday. But with Ohio State's pass defense still unproven, it will be up to Brewer to take advantage of potential growing pains, as it'd be nearly impossible for Virginia Tech to beat the Buckeyes on the road without stellar play from the quarterback position.
That's not all that surprising, considering that McKenzie rushed for a team-high 106 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries in his college debut. Williams, meanwhile, rushed for 41 yards on 12 touches, after being listed as a co-starter for the opener along with junior J.C. Coleman.
But while Coleman proved ineffective with 20 yards on 10 carries, McKenzie made the most of his opportunity, breaking off a 39-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. A 4-star prospect from Washington, Pennsylvania, McKenzie proved to be an obvious bright spot for the Hokies in their season opener.
Facing William & Mary's defense, however, is one thing, but taking on the Buckeyes? That's a whole different animal. Now atop his team's depth chart two weeks into his college carer, McKenzie will have his work cut out for him as he aims to prove that last week's impressive performance was more than a flash in the pan.
What They're Saying
As he took part in his weekly press conference on Monday, it was clear what was on Meyer's mind after the disappointing performance put on by the Ohio State offensive line in the Buckeyes season opener. And while Meyer felt as though the unit showed improvement in Saturday's second half, he remains concerned for the coming week due to the talent possessed on the Virginia Tech roster.
"Our offensive line did not play like an Ohio State offensive line," Meyer admitted. This will be one of the top one or two defensive lines we'll face this year."
Despite his concern, Meyer remains excited for the upcoming atmosphere in Columbus. While night games at Ohio Stadium are becoming more common with each passing year, they remain a special experience at The Horseshoe, especially with a big name opponent like the Hokies coming to town.
"Night game, Ohio State style, which was very unique. Our players are excited. Our fans are excited about it. We got a very good opponent, coach I've known for a long time."
That excitement has extended to Blacksburg, Virginia, where the Virginia Tech players find themselves looking forward to the prime-time game. Brewer said that he knows exactly what's on the line for the Hokies this Saturday, as well, as Virginia Tech attempts to once again make its program nationally relevant, via The Roanoke Times.
This is what college football is all about. Two great programs going at it against each other on a primetime TV slot in front of 105,000 people. Two great coaches in Urban Meyer and coach Frank Beamer. Traditionally two great defenses, two offenses kind of trying to find their way this year, trying to bounce back a little bit. Ohio State losing Braxton and trying to show that they're picking up where they left off and us trying to improve from where we were last year. It's going to be fun. I'm excited for Hokie Nation and just looking forward to getting out there and competing.
That's a sentiment shared by Beamer, who believes the Buckeyes remain a national title contender despite Miller's season-ending injury. But while Ohio State looks to pass its biggest test before Big Ten play, the Hokies are simply looking to make a statement, which leaves their head coach even more intrigued heading into Saturday's contest, via The Roanoke Times.
I think anytime you’re playing a top program in the country, you know a team that people have mentioned for a national championship, and if you can go in there and get a win, it’s great for the program. And I think our kids—I know myself—talking about the atmosphere, I like playing in a full stadium where they know Virginia Tech’s there and their fans are excited.
While it was tough to take anything away from the Ohio State defense's performance against Navy—the Midshipmen attempted just four passes on Saturday—we should get a better look at the Buckeyes and the changes made by Ash on Saturday. Given the talent OSU possesses on that side of the ball, I expect to see a return to the Silver Bullets football that was a cornerstone of the Buckeyes' success throughout the 2000s.
But while I expect Ohio State to take advantage of Virginia Tech's inexperienced quarterback, I'm still not sure what to make of the Buckeyes' counterpart. Despite what Meyer said, I'd be shocked if Barrett's role truly expanded this week, or even resembled anything more than a quarterback making the second start of his college career.
Because of this, I think we'll still see a more conservative offensive approach out of OSU, with Barrett being asked to get the ball into the hands of the Buckeyes' plethora of unproven playmakers. It wouldn't shock me to see one step to the forefront on Saturday either, with Wilson being the safest bet for a breakout game.
With so many questions left for Ohio State after its opener, it's tough to predict a lopsided Buckeyes victory, but I think that ultimately the atmosphere inside of Ohio Stadium will be too much for the Hokies to overcome. Like last week, I think that we'll see a game that's closer than the final score indicates, with promising signs for the OSU defense and a lot left to be determined about the Buckeyes offense.
Final score: Ohio State 28, Virginia Tech 14
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.
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