COLUMBUS, Ohio — For all of Ohio State’s success in the first two games — and there was plenty — there’s still a lot to be learned about this young team. The game Saturday at No. 14 Oklahoma will test the Buckeyes in a way that neither Bowling Green nor Tulsa proved capable of doing.
The Sooners are bigger, faster and better than either opponent Ohio State has seen, and they offer a chance for the Buckeyes to show just how good they might be. Here are five things to watch for as Ohio State attempts to state its case as one of the nation’s best teams.
1. The first quarter
Ohio State is a talented enough team to win this game, but whether it can execute as such remains to be seen. The Buckeyes have too much skill on both sides of the ball to lay an egg, but it’s not out of the question that a disastrous start could prove too much to overcome.
The key for the Buckeyes will be avoiding digging themselves a hole too large to find their way out. The crowd will be into the game at the start, and three-and-outs will only feed the beast. Early struggles will also bring doubt into the minds of Ohio State’s less experienced players, many of whom will be starting on the road for the first time in their careers.
Ohio State has trailed or been tied in the first quarter of both games thus far, but it will be much harder to overcome such a start in this environment. The Buckeyes’ best hope for a good night is quick success that boosts their confidence and dampens the crowd’s enthusiasm.
2. Trench warfare
Ohio State wins or loses games at the line of scrimmage, and that will absolutely be the case against the Sooners. In each of the Buckeyes’ losses in recent years, the offensive line has either been unable to run the ball or unable to keep J.T. Barrett standing upright — or both. Defeats have also featured a defensive line that failed to stop the run and couldn’t pressure the opposing passer.
Given that Oklahoma is strong up front on both sides of the ball, it will be imperative for Ohio State to find a way to control the line of scrimmage. That’s especially true on the offensive side of the ball, where two games into the season the line hasn’t played as well as it should.
If running back Mike Weber and H-back Curtis Samuel are getting stuffed and Barrett is put on the run, Ohio State’s offense won’t run nearly as efficiently as designed. And if the defensive line can’t generate pressure, well …
3. Baker Mayfield’s scrambling
Ohio State has played back-to-back teams looking to get the ball out as quickly as possible, but they’ll be facing the opposite threat against Oklahoma. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano compared Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield to Brett Favre in terms of style of play because of his ability to extend plays and increase his chances of success when things get wild.
The Buckeyes will have to find ways to confine him instead of flushing him out into space, and it will be critical for the defensive line to get into the backfield and deliver some hits instead of giving him 5 or more seconds to look for an open receiver or take off on the run.
“He scrambles, but he scrambles to throw the ball down the field,” Schiano said. “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.”
4. Dealing with noise
Will Oklahoma bring the noise? Sooners fans very well might, even though the fan base historically doesn’t have a reputation as one of the country’s rowdiest.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett said he’s prepared to scream himself hoarse if he has to in order to communicate with his teammates at the line of scrimmage. If that fails, it could get interesting given that Ohio State has three offensive linemen who will be making their first road game start Saturday. Senior center Pat Elflein said it will be paramount that the young guys know their assignments at all times in case they can’t hear the protection calls.
“If I can’t make the calls or they can’t hear the calls I’m making, they need to know what calls I would be making,” he said. “They need to have their heads up and seeing what’s going on in case I can’t make them or they can’t hear it. It comes down to practice and getting prepared. They need to be able to make the calls themselves if they can’t hear me.”
5. Weathering the storm
Ohio State has not often played in rain during Urban Meyer’s tenure, but it might be two games in a row that the Buckeyes deal with a downpour. Forecasts as of Tuesday call for a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms in Norman, Okla., on Saturday, which could lead to another delay. The halftime period against Tulsa was extended by nearly an hour because of thunderstorms, and the entire second half was played in steady rain.
Ohio State actually played better against Tulsa in the rain, largely because the Buckeyes were able to pound the Golden Hurricane with a steady diet of Samuel and Weber. Oklahoma features a bigger and better defensive front seven than Tulsa, so the Buckeyes might have to demonstrate they can throw in the rain in order to keep Oklahoma from stacking the box to stop the run.