This week, Chuck McKeever of Land-Grant Holy Land (SB Nation’s Ohio State site) was nice enough to answer some of our questions about Saturday’s matchup.
Q: Former Ohio State OC Tom Herman’s team gave the Sooners fits two weeks ago. What similarities does OSU’s current offense have with Tom Herman’s at Houston as far as schemes and personnel are concerned?
A: There are definitely a lot of similarities between the current Buckeye offense and Herman’s. These are both dynamic units who can put a lot of points on the board, lean heavily on their quarterbacks being able to pass efficiently and occasionally make plays with their feet, and spread things out to take advantage of their speed.
One difference is that the Buckeyes expect J.T. Barrett to shoulder more of the rushing load than Greg Ward, Jr. is expected to for the Cougars. (Ward rushed 16 times for...14 yards against the Sooners D, and Houston’s offense was just fine.) In the first half against Tulsa, Meyer leaned almost exclusively on a very vanilla read-option look that resulted in just six points total; the talk around the water cooler is that Meyer probably didn’t want to show too much to Bob Stoops. But he’s gone too conservative on big stages at times--two of the last three Michigan State games come to mind--so there’s no telling how heavily he’ll rely on the Buckeyes’ most milquetoast offensive set. Either way, Barrett is going to be asked to contribute on the ground.
Q: Urban Meyer’s teams typically play well on the road, but this year’s team is a bit more inexperienced than most. How concerned is Urban Meyer about coming to Norman so early in the season?
A: It’s definitely a concern. This team is loaded with blue chips from top to bottom, but as you pointed out, inexperience is a huge factor here. A lot of these guys have never played on a stage like this. That said, Meyer’s recently gotten great play out of guys who were thrust into the spotlight before they expected to be. J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones are the obvious examples, but I’d also point to DE Sam Hubbard--a former Notre Dame lacrosse commit--who got thrown into the fire in Week 1 last year once Joey Bosa’s suspension was handed down. Hubbard looked like he’d been playing the position his whole life; he looked great as a rotation guy the rest of the year. He starts now--his backup is actually Bosa’s little brother--and he’s as terrifying as we all thought he’d be.
But Norman’s on another level, as far as road environments go, and Meyer has to be at least a little worried what it will be like for his young team out there. If the Buckeyes make some stupid mistakes early, don’t protect the ball in the first quarter, etc., Sooner fans are going to go for the jugular. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen.
Q: J.T. Barrett has either been a replacement or has been looking over his shoulder over the past two years. Do you think it helps him mentally to finally be THE guy in Columbus?
A: No question. The Buckeyes won their title a year ahead of schedule, and the ensuing QB controversy undoubtedly made the team worse. Barrett now finds himself one of the oldest and most experienced players on the entire team, and it was no surprise that he was appointed a captain by Meyer. The guys he’s throwing to have really shown up in the first two weeks, and it looks like he’s as confident as he’s ever been back there.
Q: Ohio State has recruited an elite level over the past several years and is considered one of the most talented teams in the country. How has Urban Meyer been able to have so much success on the recruiting trail?
A: I think the key to Ohio State’s recruiting success is that it’s not just Urban Meyer out there. The Buckeye coaching staff as a whole has been lights-out at bringing in elite talent from all over the country. Defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs has been better at this than just about anyone--he’s an absolute maniac, but he’s the kind of maniac that young guys want to play for and sacrifice for. Coombs has “planted flags” all over the country, and it’s a self-promoting cycle.
Speaking of promotion, winning a national championship certainly doesn’t hurt recruiting efforts. And the 2014 team won that title by showing that you don’t have to be a top-10 recruit to succeed at Ohio State. Cardale Jones helmed the team to the championship despite being the third-string QB, invaluable playmaking LB Darron Lee was a high school quarterback...it’s pretty clear to high school athletes that Ohio State’s staff is going to get the absolute best out of every single player on the team, and maybe even get them paid at the next level.
Q: Oklahoma’s home-field advantage should be significant on Saturday night, but Ohio State is used to dealing with hostile environments. What do you (and Ohio State fans in general) consider to be the toughest environment in your conference (outside of Ohio State)? Also, what is the toughest non-conference environment OSU has faced in recent years?
A: No question, The Big House in Michigan is amongst the most daunting road environments that the Buckeyes play in within the conference. They fill it to capacity even for cupcake contests, so it’s obviously a hostile environment for the biggest rivalry game in the sport (no offense to the Red River game).
In recent years the Buckeyes haven’t really played many high-profile non-conference games on the road. Blacksburg was a tough place to play last season, but that was such a clear Urban Meyer revenge game that I don’t think anyone doubted that OSU was going to go there and take care of business. Playing against Alabama in SEC country, maybe?
Q: Ohio State has one of the largest fan bases in the country and usually travels well. How many fans do you estimate will make the trip to Norman?
A: Not sure about numbers, but Buckeye fans do pride themselves on traveling in droves. (It doesn’t hurt that there’s such a ridiculously large alumni base all over the country.)
The local OSU alumni club sold out its tailgate for the game, which bodes well for the size of the Buckeye crowd. If 800 people show up just for a pep rally...
Q: How do you predict the game will turn out on Saturday night? Are Buckeye fans optimistic?
A: Not to reopen a fresh wound, but I think Buckeye fans are a lot more optimistic now that we saw Houston beat the Sooners in Week 1. Tom Herman obviously learned a lot under Urban Meyer, and I think a lot of people see Houston’s success as directly derivative of Ohio State’s. That said, I think there’s a lot less pressure on Herman than there is on Urban Meyer, and he’s able to tinker with the playbook and get crazy in a way that Meyer can’t (or won’t).
Ohio State’s defense has been absolutely stifling so far, but they haven’t faced a test like the two-headed monster that is Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine. (Granted, there’s a lot of murmuring in Buckeye circles that Mayfield has really failed to live up to expectations against quality opponents.) If the Buckeyes can bottle Perine up, it’s hard not to like their chances if Mayfield becomes to focal point and has to throw often on a secondary that’s full of ballhawks.
I’m a homer to a fault, so I’ll say that this one ends up 35-27 in favor of the Buckeyes. The offense really came alive in the second half last week, and if they can keep that momentum alive, they’re going to put some points on the board.