COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s not a knock on Bowling Green or Tulsa to suggest that the Ohio State defense, which held those two high-powered offenses of a year ago to a combined six points, hasn’t had its first real test yet in 2016.
It’s also not wise to assume that just because Ohio State faced two teams that appear to be a notch below them talent-wise that the Buckeyes aren’t a really good defensive unit.
The truth is, we’re just really not sure what’s what yet. There’s a pretty good chance that uncertainty, one way or another, comes to an end on Saturday night in Norman, Okla. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer thinks so and admitted as much on Monday during his weekly news conference, though he was careful not to denigrate the Buckeyes’ last two opponents.
“The two [teams] we’ve faced, they’re both going to win games,” Meyer said. “This one’s real, real real.”
To win this game — a real, real game — the Buckeyes are going to have to find ways to improve upon what’s been a pretty good start to the season. In its first two games, Ohio State has surrendered just 216 yards per contest, but Oklahoma, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield, is a totally different beast.
The Sooners have amassed 1,033 yards in their first two games and Mayfield is completing an impressive 72 percent of his passes, throwing five touchdowns with no interceptions. Ohio State’s young secondary could get a test from Mayfield, who finished fourth in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting, and a talented group of wide receivers that can stretch the field and work in traffic.
To stop Mayfield and the Sooners, the Buckeyes will have to keep it simple.
“For us, it would be the tackle. You can’t miss a tackle,” Ohio State junior linebacker and captain Raekwon McMillan said Monday. “It’s down to the fundamentals, taking on blocks, getting off blocks, changing the math, somebody getting off a block and making a play, or if you’re in the open field with a good player like Joe Mixon, Samaje Perrine or Baker Mayfield, you’ve just got to make a tackle.”
When it comes to a player like Mayfield, that is far easier said than done. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano compared the 6-foot-1, 212-pound redshirt junior to — prepare yourselves — Brett Favre for his ability to extend a play and to make something out of nothing.
“It’s not just what he can do at quarterback, they have a really good scheme. They have an integrated run game with their pass game. I think what makes him most dangerous is when a play breaks down, he can create things,” Schiano said of Mayfield. “He scrambles, but he scrambles to throw the ball down the field. He does a very good job of keeping his eyes downfield.
“I think what’s occurred there over time is that their offensive line and receivers know he’s great at doing that, so they really work hard at finishing plays. We’re going to really have to maintain discipline in our pass rush lanes. We’re going to have to have discipline when he begins to scramble, plastering out on receivers. Eye discipline is going to be critical this week in the secondary and linebackers. He’s a fine player.”
The Ohio State coaching staff has made it no secret that they’ve been pleased with the way their defense has responded at the start of the 2016 season. But, again, this is different. This isn’t Bowling Green, this isn’t Tulsa and this isn’t Ohio Stadium.
How this inexperienced group responds early against Oklahoma can set the tone for the rest of 2016. Schiano believes the pieces are in place to do something special and now it’s just about getting it done.
“It’s going to be a totally different setting. We’re going to be away from home, playing a historically great program. This is big boy football,” he said. “Do we know how they’re going to respond? No. A lot of these guys have never been in that situation. A few of them have, but a lot of them haven’t.
“What you do as a coach is just try to prepare them as best you can, and then you have faith that you recruited the right guys. I believe we did. I believe we have the right people here. That gap between knowing and doing is the biggest gap there is. We have to go do it.”
Of course, Ohio State has a fine quarterback of its own in J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes’ redshirt junior Heisman candidate quarterback plays with a similar — though perhaps more controlled — style than Mayfield. That will help the Buckeyes as they look to bridge Schiano’s gap between knowing and doing. As they prepare for the Sooners, Barrett and a versatile Buckeyes offense tests the Silver Bullets every day, but there are differences between the Barrett and Mayfield. There’s actually one big difference, according to Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard.
“You know we can’t hit J.T.,” Hubbard joked on Monday. “Baker Mayfield is hard to bring down. I know we are going to have scout team guys that are going to do a great job for us and that’s how we will prepare. I watched some film. I’m about to go watch some more this afternoon. He’s very elusive and very quick.
“He’s kind of staying in the pocket more this season than he has in the past, but once he feels that gap or that pressure, he can really take off, so we have to contain the quarterback and work the scramble drill a lot. It’s going to be a good challenge.”
It’s going to be the first challenge of the season, if we’re being real. Real, real.