What we learned last week:
These Buckeyes do not lack toughness, but they are still not ready for a national title shot. All things considered, that’s not a bad place to be at the end of September as long as the zero remains in the loss column because developing toughness is harder than cleaning up mistakes.
I felt like heading into the game, Ohio State had a pretty clear talent advantage. Wisconsin has plenty of guys who have a good shot to play on Sundays, but the Buckeyes have more dynamic players at more positions.
Carlos Hyde, Philly Brown, Devin Smith, Dontre Wilson and of course Braxton Miller just proved to be too dangerous at too many spots on the field for Wisconsin to keep in check all night, but Jared Abbrederis nearly kept the Badgers in the game all by himself.
I did not expect Joel Stave to play as well as he did nor for him to find Abbrederis open as often as he did, but credit goes to both for executing time and time again.
The Ohio State run defense stepped up with the line holding tight and the linebackers combining for 23 tackles. C.J. Barnett was strong in filling against the run from his safety spot, and overall the tackling was pretty crisp and leverage was good. They not only played sound but within themselves when the Badgers ran the ball, and the result was holding Wisconsin roughly 245 yards below its season average on the ground.
The game plan made lots of sense because Stave looked inconsistent in games earlier this season, but I also wonder how well some of the coverages were executed by the Buckeyes. Given the dearth of threats Wisconsin had to catch the ball, it was remarkable how often Stave had people open against a defense geared more toward coverage than blitzing. Some of it was a matter of Abbrederis winning one-on-one battles with Bradley Roby (and someone has to win and someone has to lose when two good players match up), but there were also quite a few holes when the Buckeyes dropped into zones.
Offensively, we saw why Braxton Miller is the long-term answer at quarterback but also why the entire unit could have used some of those reps together that were lost while he was hurt and Carlos Hyde was suspended.
Miller’s ability to make plays can’t be duplicated, and it trumps his occasional missed reads and poor throws as long as he is not turning the ball over. Three-and-outs are bad, but points don’t come off the board.
He completed quite a few short passes, and three of his touchdown passes came on beautiful throws while he showed off his improvisational skills on the 1-yarder to Brown. With a more consistent delivery and better grasp of the whole offense, Miller is more dangerous than last year but still needs time to work into it in game situations.
What we can expect to learn this week:
Can the defense cope with the loss of Christian Bryant? Meyer was distraught at the news one of his senior safeties had suffered a season-ending ankle injury, and Bryant is a big loss.
Probably the most talkative Buckeye on the field, he was one of the emotional leaders and had rounded into an all-around productive player in his third year as a starter.
While the roster is overloaded with defensive backs, few of them have much playing time so his replacement will be unproven.
It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff handles the change. Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown seems like the logical first choice to replace Bryant as he was the one who filled in for Barnett when he was hurt earlier in the season, but the fifth-year senior has made few standout plays to this point in his career.
Will they throw open the gates and hold a full-on competition, or will it be the senior’s job to lose? Does this mean more reps for highly regarded freshman Vonn Bell, or could sophomore Ron Tanner get a chance to shine in his hometown? Bell is the second-team Star, but his level of knowledge of safety is unknown at this point. Tyvis Powell will be in the mix as well, but he also has failed to stand out in four games at the Star position this season.
Given Meyer’s love for competition, no one figures to get the job without a fight.
There is no time to waste in figuring out what to do in the defensive backfield as Northwestern promises to put lots of pressure on the Buckeye defense from sideline to sideline.
The Wildcats have a pair of effective veteran quarterbacks – dual-threat Kain Colter and pocket passer Trevor Siemien – who benefit from having all three receivers as well as “super back” Dan Vitale back from last season.
Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy form an effective running back duo that has combined for 607 yards rushing so far this season, and Northwestern hopes to get back the services of Venric Mark, a small but speedy All-Big Ten selection last season who has missed three games with a leg injury.
Northwestern doesn’t run the ball as well as Wisconsin or pass it as well as California, but this will be the most balanced offense Ohio State has seen this season and most likely the best it will face before December – if not January.
Defensively, the Wildcats have struggled, particularly against the pass, though they have 11 interceptions in four games.
With ESPN GameDay in town and another prime-time audience tuning in from across the country, this game figures to have plenty of juice and points.
I’m sure Northwestern will be a trendy upset pick, and I see the Wildcats having a better chance to pull it off than Wisconsin thanks to matchups, but the Buckeyes could take a major step toward fulfilling their ultimate goals by rising to the occasion on the shore of Lake Michigan on Saturday night.