COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ohio State opens its season against Bowling Green on Saturday, the Buckeyes will be doing so with a much different team than the one it fielded last season.
Although the names will be new, the talent level should remain near the same heights that led to a 26-2 record over the past two seasons. Here are five things the Buckeyes need to do in Week 1 to get the 2016 season off to a great start.
1. Consistent quarterback play
Above all else, Ohio State needs J.T. Barrett to be J.T. Barrett. Lost in Cardale Jones’ struggles last season was the fact that Barrett wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, either. After starting the year by completing his only pass against Virginia Tech for a touchdown, Barrett’s next three games — all against non-Power Five teams — featured the following stat line: 20 of 37 passes completed for 167 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.
And while it’s true that he was coming off an injury and probably pressing to make his mark in the quarterback battle that wouldn’t end, the fact remains that he didn’t get the job done early in the year. Ohio State needs him to be better from the start.
2. Get after the quarterback
Bowling Green features a new quarterback in James Knapke, although Knapke did get extensive experience in 2014 when starter Matt Johnson sustained a season-ending injury in the first game of the year. He started the last 13 games of the campaign and finished with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 58 percent of his passes.
Ohio State has the ability to make his life difficult on Saturday. Not only do the Buckeyes boast one of the best collections of defensive ends in the country but also Bowling Green will be without All-MAC starting left tackle Jacob Bennett, who will miss the season with a knee injury. If guys like Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes can consistently get into the backfield, it will likely be a long day for the Falcons.
3. Figure out rotations
This is both a short-term and long-term issue. Ohio State’s coaches have noted on several occasions that there are a few positions where rotations will come into play this season. The obvious two are wide receivers, where the Buckeyes have a dozen players who were either 4- or 5-star recruits, and defensive line, where the depth allows assistant coach Larry Johnson Sr. to rotate eight to 10 players per game.
Figuring out the pecking order at those two positions will be crucial not only against Bowling Green but also for the season as a whole. How many reps does freshman Nick Bosa deserve at defensive end? Which wide receivers will see the field, and in which packages? These are all questions that the OSU staff has to answer.
And then there’s the issue at cornerback, the lone position battle with no leader or winner. Sophomores Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward are in a dead heat, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs has floated the idea of playing them equally. How will that work? Ohio State will have to figure out what works best, especially with the high-octane Tulsa offense on tap the following week.
4. Get in a position to test the kicker
Position controversies are never fun, but Ohio State would be wise to find out what it has in walk-on kicker Tyler Durbin, who is only in his second season of playing football after a collegiate soccer career at James Madison.
While Durbin has never attempted a kick in a game, he did make a 62-yarder in fall camp that led to the removal of his black stripe.
Black Stripe is removed after a 62-yard field goal today! Congrats Tyler! pic.twitter.com/5yBF751k3K
— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 23, 2016
With starting kicker Sean Nuernberger out against Bowling Green due to an injury, it wouldn’t hurt Ohio State to kick the tires on its backup option. One season after the Buckeyes went all season without making a 40-yard field goal, there’s no such thing as too many options at that position. If Ohio State finds itself holding a comfortable lead and facing fourth down in between the Bowling Green 30- and 40-yard line, why not let Durbin have a go at it?
5. Step on the throat
After 21 of 25 true freshmen redshirted last year, more than half of Ohio State’s 85 scholarship players have freshman eligibility. That’s in part because some guys just weren’t ready to play last year, but it’s also because they didn’t get the opportunity early.
Ohio State beat Hawaii 38-0 last year but didn’t put away the Rainbow Warriors until late in the fourth quarter, and the Buckeyes squeaked by Northern Illinois 20-13. Things didn’t get much better against Western Michigan, a 38-12 triumph in which the Buckeyes once again looked sluggish. All of those games featured extended minutes for the starters, which meant the second string often didn’t come in until late in the game and the newcomers never saw the field at all.
With the nation’s best recruiting class coming in next year, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer can’t afford to have a situation where two top-five recruiting classes are both on the same eligibility track. The true freshmen have to play.