This Buckeyes offense appears as lethal as ever and it starts with quarterback CJ Stroud. What makes him so special?
I think the thing that has set him apart, especially in his second year as the team’s starter, is his anticipation and accuracy. He has an impressively strong arm, but not as much so as his immediate predecessors in Dwayne Haskins and Justin Fields. However, he has proven to be able to fit balls into just about any window on the field, even if that window appears to be closed and hidden behind a brick wall when he releases the ball.
He can “make all the throws” and all of those other cliches we hear about quarterbacks, but his ability to put the ball in places that only his extremely talented group of wide receivers can catch it is his most impressive and important trait, in my opinion.
And, it should be noted, working in tandem with that, is the fact that this season, he appears far more confident and relaxed both on and off the field than he was in 2021. He has seemingly grown into his role as a leader on the team and seems to have a better understanding of (and comfortability with) what it is that he can and can’t do as a player.
Helping Stroud is a plethora of receivers. Most Badger fans likely know Jaxon Smith-Njigba but others have stolen the show so far this year. Can you tell us about this group?
Wide receivers coach Brian Hartline has honestly done a mind-bogglingly good job at assembling arguably the most talented position group in the country with three five-star and seven four-star WRs in the room. With Smith-Njigba suffering an injury against Notre Dame and the buckeye coaches slowly bringing him back during the duration of the non-conference schedule, Marvin Harrison Jr. – who shined at the Rose Bowl in January – and Emeka Egbuka have had the opportunities to show what they can do without the presence of arguably the best pass-catcher in the country.
They were also joined by former No. 1 wide receiver in the country Julian Fleming last week against Toledo. Fleming has dealt with injuries in the first two years of his OSU career (including a separated shoulder during fall camp), but he returned to the lineup last week and caught two touchdown passes. While I don’t think that they will play much against the Badgers, veterans Jayden Ballard and Xavier Johnson, and a bunch of first-year guys are also able to make plays.
So the quarterback is great, the wideouts are great and deep, and the running back room is solid as ever. Is there ANY weakness to this offense?
I could probably write up a few paragraphs about how the offensive line still isn’t living up to expectations and how sometimes the running backs have to create their own running lanes, but honestly, that would be nitpicking at this point. Without sounding like a typical, arrogant Ohio State fan, there isn’t much that gives me concern from an offensive standpoint.
Will it always be as easy as it was against Toledo? Of course not. Will Wisconsin be able to keep some portion of the OSU offense in check, as Notre Dame did in the first half? Probably. But when it comes to true weaknesses, I don’t think that the Ohio State offense really has anything overly glaring.
Last year the defense was the main area of concern and Ohio State went out to try and fix it by bringing in former Oklahoma State coordinator Jim Knowles. How has he changed this defense so far?
In a word, “dramatically.” Not only has Knowles overhauled the defense from a schematic standpoint, but he has also changed the unit’s entire approach to playing defense. Under the previous defensive regime, the philosophy was to keep everything in front of you and collapse in to make plays.
Under Knowles, aggression is the dominating principle. We have already seen more (and more exotic) blitzes this season than in recent years from the OSU defense, and while the new coordinator acknowledges that this will lead to the occasional big play for opposing offenses, that is acceptable if the trade-off is more negative plays as well.
From a scheme perspective, the Buckeyes are now running a 4-2-5 setup with an emphasis put on the play of the team’s safeties. But, this also means that Knowles is giving more opportunities to the defensive line and linebackers to go and make plays, which is something that was severely lacking under the previous coordinator.
Is there an area that Wisconsin can look to try and exploit on this Buckeyes defense?
While Knowles’ new defense has certainly been a marked improvement over the last two seasons, it is far from perfect. While the defensive line has been able to get a considerable amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they haven’t gotten home nearly as often as Knowles (or fans) would like. However, that is far from the biggest concern on the OSU defense.
The biggest issue on defense (and honestly on the entire team) is the play and health of an already thin cornerback room. They come into the season with only six scholarship corners available, and the top three all suffered varying degrees of injuries during preseason camp. Jordan Hancock has yet to return, and it does not appear that he will be in uniform against Wisconsin either.
Meanwhile, while Cameron Brown has played well despite dealing with injuries, he left last week’s game against Toledo and CB1 Denzel Burke has underperformed all season and has even been pulled at times for younger players. The coaching staff continues to reiterate their faith in Burke, but it is a major concern for this team’s aspirations this season.
While the safeties have been able to help out in coverage at times, if an offense is able to get one-on-one matchups with OSU’s corners, that has generally been a recipe for success (or disaster, depending on your perspective).
Is there anything that scares you about Wisconsin in this matchup?
Of course, there is. Other than a few memorable outliers (which I won’t mention by year or score out of respect for B5Q and its readers), the games between these two teams over the past decade or so have been incredibly close, hard-fought, old-school Big Ten battles.
The Buckeyes had something similar to that in their opener against Notre Dame, but eventually imposed their will in the second half, and since then, the Irish haven’t proven to be the top-five team that they were purported to be at the time. So, I do have concerns about whether OSU’s offseason-long campaign to emphasize toughness will have come to bear against a legitimately physical opponent on Saturday.
That goes for both the offense and defense. Last season, both lines were pushed around a lot by the best opposition that they faced, and if those units have truly turned a corner, Wisconsin will be the first true opportunity to do that.
I also imagine that Jim Leonhard will do everything he can to come up with a scheme to confuse Stroud and limit his ability to get the ball to his playmakers. However, as I said earlier, I think there are just so many different weapons on the offense that the Buckeyes will still be able to move the ball and score, but how quickly and how often is certainly still to be determined.
Can you give us your prediction for Saturday?
I’ve gone back and forth on this, and I think I said something along the lines of 35-20 on your podcast, with word that Smith-Njigba has been fully practicing since we recorded that episode, I think I am going to up my prediction to 42-20, but am fully prepared to eat crow when it ends up being a 10-9 game one way or the other.