It's not any comfort to us Oklahoma fans, but Ohio State's offense sure looks an awful lot like Houston's. They don't play at the same breakneck speed, and J.T. Barrett isn't likely to sprint for 30 yards at any given moment, but there are definitely similarities between Urban Meyer's unit and that of his former offensive coordinator, Tom Herman.
Meyer admitted as much during his Monday press conference, too, saying that he and Herman had talked about Oklahoma's defensive personnel. I can only imagine that conversation ("Throw at that Austin kid," or maybe, "Get it outside, they don't tackle"), but it works both ways. Oklahoma can use the highly instructive Houston tape to predict Meyer's moves.
They can also watch Ohio State's Week Two win over Tulsa for some defensive hints. Though that game ended as a blowout, tOSU didn't score a single offensive touchdown in the first half. If the Sooners can pull that same trick, they'll probably win. Unlike Tulsa, they can actually score.
But OU shouldn't take its points for granted. The Buckeyes have a young defense--heck, they have a young everything since they lost 16 starters from last year--but it's full of 4- and 5-star recruits who fly to the ball and have an incredible seven interceptions this season with nine total takeaways. And while it's true the Sooners are in a different class than Ohio State's first two opponents, the Buckeyes have already seen and stopped two different Air Raid offenses this year.
Here's how the Buckeyes break down so far this season.
Ohio State is loaded at the skill positions, especially in the backfield where J.T. Barrett no longer has to battle for the job each week and Zeke Elliot's departure has cleared the way for redshirt freshman Mike Weber.
Barrett rarely stands still after taking a shotgun snap--he throws effectively on the move, scrambling behind his agile linemen. Barrett gets the ball out extremely fast, rarely holding it for more than three seconds, and frequently finds receivers in the flat or running short curls or digs. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner lulls defenses with these short routes and sets up Barrett for deep bombs when he finds a receiver in a favorable one-on-one.
For all the flak he took last year about his arm strength, Barrett has looked excellent through two games this season. OU will have to win the 50/50 balls they didn't in Houston, or Barrett will burn them over the back shoulder.
Still, tOSU's short pass game can get predictable. Bowling Green linebacker Brandon Harris picked off Barrett on the Buckeyes' first series of the year, reading the QB's eyes to get between the ball and the receiver in the flat.
Barrett's legs are a threat, but usually only in short-yardage situations. He's a skilled reader of defenses and if he can get linebackers out of position on read-option plays, he'll pull the handoff and run up the middle for a first down or score. Oklahoma's young linebackers must maintain their eye discipline and not commit too soon on Ohio State's option reads.
That's going to be tough, because they've got a dynamic pair of halfback running threats--who are also excellent pass-catchers out of the backfield and in the slot.
Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson combined to torch the Tulsa defense last week, racking up 270 total yards between them and finishing 1-2 in receiving yards on the day. Ohio State regularly sends them out of the backfield on wheel routes, screens and check-down passes, but they're also good pass blockers and, most importantly, runners. The Buckeyes like to spring them outside with off-tackle runs and sweeps, so OU's linebackers will need speed and sound tackling to get the backs down or force them out before they get to the edge.
Ohio State also has a big stable of young, talented receivers. Samuel and Wilson have been catching as many passes as the receivers lately, especially in the red zone, but sophomore Noah Brown is still a deep threat and the Buckeyes are rolling about ten receivers deep. When they start passing to Wilson, Samuel and K.J. Hill from the slot, they give defenses real problems by creating mismatches on cover linebackers. Will Johnson in particular will be tested Saturday.
If Ohio State can be beat anywhere, it's on the offensive line. Pat Elflein is an elite senior center, but his tackles are first-year starters and they'll have a hard time pass blocking for Barrett and creating lanes for Weber. If OU can load the box and keep tOSU's linemen from blocking at the second level, middle linebackers like Jordan Evans should be able to stuff the inside running game and take away at least one facet of Ohio State's dynamic offense.
Whatever relative struggles their offense may have had, the Buckeyes have yet to surrender a touchdown in the 2016 campaign. They've been excellent.
Their four interceptions against the Golden Hurricane included two for redshirt sophomore corner Marshon Lattimore, who returned one 40 yards for a touchdown. Sophomore safety Malik Hooker also had a pick-six in the contest.
While several of Ohio State's early-season picks came on tipped passes, the Buckeye secondary has great speed and ball skills and will take advantage of any mistakes.
tOSU's pass rush has been less impressive so far, generating just four sacks against two sub-par teams. The Buckeyes run most plays from a 4-3 base, rarely rushing more than five guys. The Ohio State linebackers are rarely asked to rush the passer--instead, they tend to read run/pass, spy the quarterback (which they'll be doing plenty against Baker and his legs) or drop back into short coverage. The team's front seven may look simple, but it's been incredibly effective so far. Tulsa rushed for less than two yards per carry last weekend, and the Buckeyes held Bowling Green to just 69 yards on the ground.
Ohio State hasn't seen backs like Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, so it's possible the Sooners could dial up some run plays and short passes that put this disciplined front seven on its heels. That's what Oklahoma will have to do, because this Buckeye secondary is just begging to pull down Baker Mayfield's first interception of the year. If the Sooners feel compelled to go away from their running game like they did against Houston, they won't have much of a chance.
Ohio State is young and, to quote every college football fan, they ain't played nobody. But it's easy to see why they're a top-5 team. They've recruited with the very best of the country since Urban Meyer came to Columbus, and that means competitive teams even after losing 16 starters.
Oklahoma certainly has a chance, but this one will hinge on the defensive performance. The Sooners will probably score on the Buckeyes, but there is also the potential for game-swinging pick-sixes and disastrous plays like the ones OU suffered in Houston. The difference in this one could be the home crowd--playing in Norman will give the Sooners an advantage they desperately needed two weeks ago, and if they knock off Ohio State the national punditry will be far more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when Playoff season rolls around.