COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s road to Indianapolis is a little smoother these days.
The Buckeyes (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) are coming off a huge win against Nebraska. That victory solidified their place as a college football contender. Furthermore, Ohio State faces a two-game road trip against teams with a combined conference record of 2-10. The first of those will come against Maryland (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten), which has fallen off after a 4-0 start.
The Buckeyes are four-touchdown favorites and figure to win with ease. However, that doesn’t preclude them from a letdown or a setback with Michigan looming in the distance. With that in mind, here are five keys to watch for.
1. Showing up
Ohio State has a much better roster than Maryland. Recruiting rankings show that, as does the point spread. One could also look at the scores of the past two contests. The Buckeyes won, 52-24, on the road in 2014 and prevailed, 49-28, last season in Columbus.
Given that information, it’s easy to see why Ohio State’s win probability is through the roof. With that being said, the talent gap doesn’t give OSU a free pass. There are still things this team needs to improve upon to compete for championships. Sleepwalking through this contest would waste a valuable opportunity to grow.
2. Avoiding injuries
This is going to sound bad, but injuries are likely the only way Ohio State comes out of this game upset. In order to win a Big Ten championship, the Buckeyes can’t afford to be without key contributors. The ability to rest starters is a big reason why item No. 1 is even more critical. A rout would spare quarterback J.T. Barrett and some of his counterparts from the wear and tear of a four-quarter game.
3. Gaining experience
This issue also relates to the previous two in a way. Against Nebraska, Ohio State gave a few first-half snaps to true freshman wide receivers Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack. Playing Maryland could provide a valuable opportunity for head coach Urban Meyer to see which young contributors might be ready for a bigger role. In addition to Mack and Victor, true freshman H-back Demario McCall also looks like a guy who could see his touches increase going forward.
4. Fixing special teams
Once again, a game where the score isn’t tight could allow Ohio State to work out some problems. Special teams is an area of the game ripe for experimentation. And that could be a number of things.
Firstly, the Buckeyes might want to see if kicker Tyler Durbin can make a kick longer than 40 yards. If the right situation arises, why not try it? Secondly, Meyer alluded to potentially switching out punt returner Dontre Wilson. That should happen. There are a number of options, including H-backs Curtis Samuel, K.J. Hill and McCall.
Lastly, the punting game still needs to be refined. Ohio State didn’t punt against Nebraska, so that might be easy to forget. However, Cameron Johnston’s last two games were his worst two of the season. That’s mostly not his fault, as there was a block against Penn State and deflection against Northwestern. Still, it’s a sign that the unit as a whole needs to get some things sorted out.
5. Script Ohio
Ohio State’s horrible opening drives finally caused the Buckeyes to examine why they were so ineffective at the start. Since making that an emphasis, Ohio State has opened the game with a touchdown on its first offensive possession in back-to-back games. Previously, the offense had scored just three points on its opening drives in the first seven games. Meyer said his team and staff will continue to look at that. The sharper Ohio State performs from the start, the less likely teams are to catch up.