Ohio State Football: Unanswered Questions Heading into Virginia Tech Showdown

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 3, 2014

It's the Ohio State defense that faces the biggest questions heading into Saturday's showdown with Virginia Tech.
It's the Ohio State defense that faces the biggest questions heading into Saturday's showdown with Virginia Tech.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

After quickly reviewing it for effort and basic execution, Urban Meyer did something with the defensive game tape from Ohio State's season opener against Navy that the Buckeyes' obsessive head coach doesn't typically do.

He threw it out.

Because while the Midshipmen may have rushed for 370 yards in the 34-17 Ohio State victory, the reality is that Navy's success with the triple-option raised a headache more than it did a red flag for Meyer and the Buckeyes. There will be no carryover defensively for Ohio State from last weekend to the next—or any other this season—making the game film exceptionally expendable for Meyer.

"You don't take much from that," Meyer said. "I didn't see a lot of missed tackles. I saw a couple of execution errors on a new play they put in. First game of the season, those things happen. I'm not concerned about that."

The still virtually unknown status of the Buckeyes' revamped defense is just one of many reasons why this weekend's showdown with Virginia Tech will serve as Ohio State's de facto season opener. The Buckeyes left Baltimore with a win—but also several unanswered questions, chief among them being where Ohio State's pass defense stands at the start of the 2014 season.

What follows is the top three unanswered questions that the Buckeyes still face, heading into their prime-time matchup with the Hokies this weekend.

Unanswered Question 1: How improved will the Silver Bullets be?

Perhaps the largest question that loomed in Columbus in the long eight months following last season's Orange Bowl, Ohio State fans have been anxious to see how the Buckeyes will bounce back from a 2013 that saw them rank 118th (out of 125) teams in passing yards allowed per game.

In replacing Everett Withers as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, Chris Ash has been tasked with overhauling what was a poor (and that may be kind) Buckeyes pass defense a year ago. Since arriving in January, Ash has implemented a quarters coverage system that places an emphasis on press coverage—a system that stifled Ohio State in 2012 when Ash was Wisconsin's defensive coordinator.

And while the Buckeyes' new defense drew rave reviews from Meyer in the offseason, its debut was put on delay against a Navy team that attempted just four passes in the season opener. That only left the Ohio State head coach even more anxious to see how his defense will play this Saturday, when it gets its first look at a conventional offense this season.

"[I'm] real curious. We have to shift gears," Meyer said of his defense on Monday. "Getting ready for that game is tough enough. It's just now you have to go back to pass defense that's brand new. So we actually started in earnest yesterday on the field. We usually we don't do much on Sunday. Yesterday we did, getting back to seeing if we improved our pass defense."

Meyer should get a pretty good answer on Saturday when his team goes up against a Hokies squad that attempted 31 passes in its season-opening win over William & Mary. VT starting quarterback Michael Brewer completed 23 of his 30 attempts for 251 yards and two touchdowns, a far cry from the 2-for-4, 20-yard performance to Midshipmen signal-caller Keenan Reynolds "enjoyed" against OSU on Saturday.

With the Hokies being one of the more talented teams that the Buckeyes will face this season, Saturday should be a good gauge of just how far Ohio State has come with its one glaring weakness from a season ago. The Buckeyes defense cost them a chance at playing for a national title a season ago and will only be relied on more heavily with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm of its counterpart.

J.T. Barrett will get the second start of his college career on Saturday.
J.T. Barrett will get the second start of his college career on Saturday.USA TODAY Sports

Unanswered Question 2: What should we make of J.T. Barrett?

Speaking of J.T. Barrett, all eyes will once again be on the redshirt freshman quarterback this Saturday, as he makes the second start of his college career.

Earning Big Ten co-Freshman of the Week honors, Barrett performed admirably in his debut, connecting on 12 of 15 pass attempts for 226 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, while also rushing for a team-high 50 yards. But like the Ohio State defense, it was hard to tell what you could take away from Barrett's season opener, as his responsibilities were similarly limited.

The Buckeyes' game plan was admittedly conservative with Barrett starting in place of Braxton Miller on just two weeks notice, but that should change as Ohio State's new starter gets more comfortable with his new role. Like he did with Miller two years ago, Meyer has insisted that Barrett's role will grow with each passing week, which could mean new plays for the OSU offense to work with on Saturday.

"We went into a very vanilla last week," Meyer said. "We will keep giving him more and more."

But while Barrett may have new tools to work with, he'll also be facing a tougher test in the second start of his college career. The Midshipmen may have played hard, but the Hokies have much more talent on the defensive side of the ball, including a secondary that college football expert Phil Steele ranked as the best in all of college football heading into the season.

That's where Saturday could get tricky for Barrett and the Buckeyes, as they match up with a defense that Meyer says is one of the two best Ohio State will see all season. For each of the past three seasons, the Buckeyes have had Miller's legs to bail them out sticky situations, a luxury that Meyer knows OSU will no longer be able to enjoy.

"He's just not the dynamic guy," Meyer said of Barrett's running ability. "[I] wouldn't mind, when you go, go."

Given the talent mismatch that the Buckeyes enjoyed last week and Barrett's limited role, it was tough to take a lot away from his college debut. That shouldn't be the case this week, as Ohio State will need to rely on its quarterback to execute more than just a "vanilla" game plan in order to walk away with a win against one of the tougher teams on its schedule.

Jacoby Boren (50) and the Ohio State offensive line have plenty to prove on Saturday.
Jacoby Boren (50) and the Ohio State offensive line have plenty to prove on Saturday.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Unanswered Question 3: Which half was the real Ohio State offensive line?

Last Saturday was a tale of two halves for the Ohio State offensive line, a unit attempting to replace four multiyear starters from a season ago. After a bad start for the Buckeyes in the opening two quarters, the offensive line finished the game strong, helping pave the way for a 28-point second half.

The good news is that the OSU offensive line progressed and only got better as the game wore on.

The bad news? As good as the Buckeyes got, Meyer knows that the unit will have to get even better to beat Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's aggressive front.

"We have to get much better fast on the offensive line," Meyer said. "The second half, we played pretty good. But pretty good is not what we expect. You play pretty good this week you won't win that game."

At the very least, Meyer has found some consistency on the line, eliminating two "ORs" from the opening depth chart and settling on a starting lineup that includes left tackle Taylor Decker, left guard Pat Elflein, center Jacoby Boren, right guard Billy Price and right tackle Darryl Baldwin. Of that group, only Decker and Elflein had seen significant snaps in their college careers prior to last Saturday, indicative of the inexperience that the unit entered the 2014 season with.

But with one game under their collective belt, the OSU offensive line is hopeful that its second half progress from a week ago was not the result of a talent mismatch, but rather the start of a trend that will continue for the remainder of the season. The Hokies will certainly put that theory to the test on Saturday, and should serve as a true measuring stick for where the revamped Buckeyes offensive line truly stands.

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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