COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s 2016 season got off to a dream start with a 77-10 win against Bowling Green, but that victory also brought increased expectations for coach Urban Meyer’s program.
The Buckeyes appear to have a bigger test on their hands with Tulsa, which opened its season with a 45-10 victory over San Jose State. Here are five things to watch for as Ohio State attempts to follow up on its impressive opening act:
1. The weight of expectations
The idea that this season would be light on expectations lasted all of about one half before J.T. Barrett and company took a blowtorch to it with a 77-point showing against Bowling Green. The Buckeyes entered their season opener with far more uncertainty than pressure, but those days are gone. Already.
There have been years where Ohio State would sleepwalk through a first half only to snap out of it and demolish an opponent, but that was less prevalent last season when the nonconference games tended to stay closer than they should have. Against a better foe, can Ohio State keep its foot on the gas pedal and hang 50 on the Golden Hurricane? Any lapses in execution won’t be good not only on Saturday but also heading into the much-hyped Week 3 matchup against Oklahoma.
2. The hole at defensive tackle
The injury to Tracy Sprinkle was as severe as expected, and Meyer said Monday that it appears he’ll be out for the season. That removes a starter at defensive tackle, a spot where Ohio State was vulnerable last season.
How will Ohio State replace him? For now, it appears as though redshirt freshman Dre’mont Jones will get many of those snaps, but they’ll also be divvied up between three more redshirt freshmen in DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers. Ohio State has to show it is strong up the middle, and that starts in the trenches.
3. A propensity for penalties
Bowling Green was not equipped to make Ohio State pay for its mistakes. Although Barrett opened the season with an interception that was returned for a touchdown, it hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things. Likewise, the Buckeyes were never really hurt by their nine penalties for 66 yards.
Execution is often sloppier in the first game than in others going forward, but it’s critical that Ohio State cuts down on mental errors. Tulsa has enough firepower to make teams pay when their drives get extended, and the Buckeyes would be well served to neither help them out in that department nor put their own offense in bad situations.
4. Making the leap
Meyer channeled his inner Nick Saban with his assessment of the performance against Bowling Green, saying he wasn’t overly pleased with how the Buckeyes played.
“I think it was good. It wasn’t great. It was good,” he said. “I think Corey Smith should be better than he is. I think he didn’t play great. He’s dealing with some injuries. And I don’t think that the technique of our wideouts was where it needs to be, even though they did make some very good plays. I thought our tailback played good. Offensive line, obviously when you only have one guy grade champion, they didn’t play very good. So they have to get much better.”
There was still optimism afterward, however, as Meyer referenced the improvement that teams often make after playing their first game of the season.
“What happens is, and you’ll hear the old adage that people get better between one and two and that’s because you get your game legs back. For example, our guys have been off since Wednesday — actually Tuesday. They didn’t have padded, there’s some guys on our team that have not hit since last Tuesday. And they’re not going to practice again until (Wednesday). So your body starts to come back and you’ll be full speed.”
Can Ohio State also make that leap? Continuing to improve and clean up its errors would go a long way toward making sure Tulsa can’t hang with the Buckeyes.
5. The pass rush
Ohio State’s defensive line has been viewed as one of the team’s biggest strengths, but the Buckeyes recorded only two sacks against Bowling Green and both came with the starters long gone from the game. Now, that was largely because the Falcons did everything in their power to get the ball out within a couple of seconds, but Tulsa has the ability to do the same.
Fifth-year senior Dane Evans was efficient last year — he completed 63 percent of his passes while throwing 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions — and is capable of picking apart defenses if the pressure isn’t there. Ohio State will need to find a way to hit him when those chances come. Taking him out of his comfort zone early would go a long way toward limiting the amount of success he’s able to generate.