Ohio State’s 17-point victory over Navy last Saturday was a little too close for comfort. Buckeye fans are not accustomed to seeing just six points on the board at halftime. Neither is Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, and he told Bill Landis of the Northeast Ohio Media Group the poor play starts up front.
Very disappointed," Meyer said. "There's a standard set of offensive line play for many, many years, and it's really been enhanced by Coach Warinner the last two years. That didn't resemble an offensive line at Ohio State for the first two quarters.
Meyer, tradition and a defense filled with elite talent led to lofty expectations this season, but it is obvious there is no substitute for experience. With eight new starters on offense, no one should be surprised that it took a couple of quarters to get going against the Midshipmen. The offense won’t have the luxury of a slow start this week.
Ohio State takes on Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. ET Saturday in Ohio Stadium. This will be the Buckeyes' first difficult nonconference game under Meyer. The Hokies might be unranked, but they have been one of the most consistently good teams for the past 20 years under head coach Frank Beamer. The Buckeyes are in for a battle, as Virginia Tech wants to end Ohio State’s 25-game regular-season winning streak and get back to being among the best in the FBS. Ohio State must play considerably better to hold off the Hokies.
Here are three keys to the winning the game:
J.T. Barrett Playing with Poise
After Braxton Miller was lost for the year, there was a legitimate concern that a special season was in jeopardy. After Barrett’s performance against Navy, there should be a collective sigh of relief. He finished the game 12-of-15, passing for 225 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also had 50 yards rushing. That is a great start to his career, but Virginia Tech’s defense is far superior to Navy’s defense. This week's challenge will substantially harder.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is a fantastic coach and one of the premier defensive strategists in the game. Expect him to dial up the intensity and disguise his cover packages to confuse Barrett and force him into making costly mistakes.
The Hokies’ strength is their secondary, where Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson return. Last year, Fuller was the ACC’s Rookie of the Year, and both were named first-team freshman All-Americans by 247Sports. They’re hard-hitting cornerbacks who cover well. Fuller is ready for the challenge of playing the Buckeyes telling the Associated Press, "It's definitely going to be fun, something we're all looking forward to, playing a team like that that's been successful over the years with a great environment and great college atmosphere," he said.
With Fuller and Facyson flying all over the field, Barrett will have to be quick with his decisions and precise in his throws for the offense to be effective. Avoiding interceptions and getting the ball to his playmakers in space is critical. This is also his first home game in front of 105,000 fans at night. He definitely needs to feed off of that energy. If he plays well, the Buckeyes’ offense will be fine.
Attack on Defense
If the coaches and talent are as good as advertised, it is time to unleash the fury. The yearning for the return of the Silver Bullets is palpable, and Buckeye Nation has been anxiously waiting since January to see the impact that co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson will have on this team. Their aggressive style will be put to the test against Virginia Tech who runs an uptempo, pro-style offense.
One player who appears ready to show off the new look is sophomore Darron Lee, who will be making just his second start at strong-side linebacker. He finished with seven tackles and had a 61-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Navy, earning him the Big Ten Network’s Defensive Player of The Week. If his progression continues, it is safe to say the Buckeyes won’t miss Ryan Shazier.
Ash’s effect on the defense should be most visible in the secondary, which did not get many opportunities to showcase its improvement against Navy’s triple option. That won’t be the case against Virginia Tech’s balanced attack.
Quarterback Michael Brewer had a successful debut against William & Mary last week, finishing the game 23-of-30 for 251 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. The Hokies also rushed for 222 yards against the Tribe.
Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell have the perfect opportunity to put last year’s demons to rest by playing with discipline. Under Ash’s base 4-3 over Cover 4 defense, the safeties need to react quickly to the call. With the defensive line and linebackers focusing on their gap assignments and the corners locking down their section of the field, the safeties are the glue that makes the Cover 4 work well. If they play fundamentally sound and are in sync with the corners and linebackers, the defense will earn back its Silver Bullets nickname.
Improve Third-Down Conversion Percentage
Against Navy, the offense was just 2-of-8 on third-down conversion attempts. It needs to be closer to 50 percent to beat the Hokies. The key is getting good production on first and second down to avoid long-yardage situations. Success depends on the offensive line playing much better.
Given his history, it is likely that Ed Warinner will correct the line’s mistakes. If he did, they should be able to stop the Hokies’ pressure giving the skill players a little time and space to work their magic and put the offense in great field position throughout the game.
This game has been marked on Ohio State’s calendar for several years, and it comes at an ideal time. Championship-caliber teams need to face some adversity to test their resolve. Beating the Hokies would give the Buckeyes a tremendous confidence boost. It won’t be easy, but they should pull out a 27-17 win.