COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dress rehearsals are over. The big show is here, and the curtain is about to go up.
“This one is real,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “Real real.”
Meyer and the No. 3 Buckeyes are traveling to Norman, Okla., to take on No. 14 Oklahoma in a matchup that will help determine the national championship picture. The Sooners began the season expected to contend for a College Football Playoff spot but opened with a loss to Houston, in effect turning this game into an elimination game for them.
“This is going to be one of those prizefights that’s going to be a tough one,” Meyer said.
Here’s a look at what to expect when the teams face off at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time on Fox.
When Ohio State has the ball
It’s been a good start for the Ohio State offense this fall, although 21 of the Buckeyes’ 125 points have come directly from the defense and plenty of other scores have been aided by defensive takeaways. Still, quarterback J.T. Barrett has for the most part been as accurate as he needs to be, and running back Mike Weber and H-back Curtis Samuel have proven capable of generating the production Ohio State needs from them.
Oklahoma’s 3-4 defense could present some problems for the Buckeyes, however. It’s fair to note that this stat is influenced both by weather and margin of victory thus far, but Ohio State has run the ball 103 times this season while passing it just 61 times. That percentage likely isn’t going to get it done against the Sooners’ strong front seven, which is geared toward stopping the run.
“We have to be balanced,” Meyer said. “You have no chance in this game if you think you’re going to go just pound the ball. Their defensive system is not to allow inside run. Their base defense that they want to install is to negate the run, and so we’re going to have to be very balanced.
“You have to be really on your target to run the football on them. They’re big, gigantic guys inside.”
That’s not to say that the Sooners’ defense is impenetrable. Former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman led Houston to a 33-23 win over the Cougars using an offense very similar to the one the Buckeyes employ. Ohio State needs to get Barrett going early and hit some big plays to its wide receivers in order to properly attack the Oklahoma defense.
“Very similar offenses,” Meyer said. “Houston made their money on — it’s not like they methodically moved the ball down the field on them. They made some big plays on them, and great two or three back-shoulder throws, couple of isolation passing routes and little trick play the tailback swing out of the back field, but it wasn’t a methodical beating. I think it was 33 points they put on them. But they played very well.”
Edge: Ohio State
When Oklahoma has the ball
Nothing Ohio State saw in its first two games is going to prepare the Buckeyes for what the Sooners have to offer. Oklahoma’s running back tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon has the potential to tear up the Buckeyes if the Ohio State defensive tackles don’t play better than they have thus far this season, and quarterback Baker Mayfield will feast if the defensive backs don’t maintain discipline when he leaves the pocket.
“I think what makes him most dangerous is when a play breaks down he can create things,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “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.”
Ohio State’s defense has been spotless thus far, but this will be by far the biggest test they’ve faced this season and will come on the road.
It seems as though the Buckeyes will once again be going with kicker Tyler Durbin, though they’ve passed him up in favor of fourth-down attempts both times they’ve had a chance to kick a field goal longer than 30 yards. Senior punter Cameron Johnston has been punting at an elite level, averaging 50.7 yards on six punts this season.
Austin Seibert handles kicking and punting for the Sooners. He boasts a 43.6-yard average on eight punts this season and has made field goals of 25 and 39 yards this season while missing from 53.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Meyer have met once before, with Meyer claiming a 24-14 victory while at Florida to win the 2008 national championship. Both coaches have long and successful histories, and you’re unlikely to see anything like the amateur hour that plagued Tulsa at the end of the first half of last week’s Ohio State win.
Both coaches remain at the top of their game. Despite jokes about his performance in high-stakes matchups, Stoops boasts a 29-17 record in games featuring two top-15 teams, and he took Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff last season. Meyer owns an 18-10 record in games with two top-15 teams and has never lost a true road game while at Ohio State, going 18-0 thus far.
Edge: Ohio State
It’s hard to imagine a blowout on either side given the sheer amount of talent on both sides. What this game will come down to is how well Ohio State’s 16 new starters handle the first road start of their career. If the Buckeyes are unfazed by the atmosphere, their superior talent should carry the day. If they get off to a slow start and the crowd roars and doubt seeps in, that’s a recipe for an Oklahoma win.
Ryan Ginn’s prediction: Ohio State 35, Oklahoma 31
Jeremy Birmingham’s prediction: Oklahoma 31, Ohio State 28