COLUMBUS, Ohio – UAB is 0-2, lost 49-6 to South Carolina last week and comes to Ohio State for Saturday’s game outmanned at probably every position and more than a five-touchdown underdog in Las Vegas.
On Wednesday night, both Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and defensive lineman John Simon called UAB “a very good team.”
A close game would be a shock to most, but there’s still going to be a game at Ohio Stadium Saturday at noon. It’s an important game for 3-0 Ohio State, which opens Big Ten play next week at Michigan State, then follows that first road game with what looms as a tough home game vs. Nebraska.
The Buckeyes were far from perfect, especially in the second half, in what became a 35-28 victory over Cal last week. Following is a look at five issues/questions the Buckeyes must answer going forward, and how the UAB game might play into getting a few things fixed.
1. The Buckeyes aren’t tackling well
Last week looked like last year, and that’s not a good thing for the defense. Cal running back Brendan Bigelow had two long touchdown runs after slipping tackles and ran for 160 yards on four carries — and the Buckeyes have to be thankful it was only four.
Arm-tackling and poor angles have Meyer saying his team isn’t playing like an “Ohio State defense,” and even though the Buckeyes have physical practices every week, that ramped up this week in an attempt to get things fixed.
“The thing about tackling is it’s a basic part of the game,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “Everybody should know how to tackle. We’ve just been too lazy, or not wrapping up, or we really just haven’t been finishing through. So we’ve been practicing tackling more this week and we just finish through.”
UAB is a spread team that will throw more than it will run, so it’s not a tuneup for any of the remaining eight games in that sense. Because the Buckeyes should have plenty of open-field tackling opportunities, the chance to improve is there.
2. Get well, stay well.
Braxton Miller is taking too many hits, despite Meyer’s insistence that he’s not on any type of “pitch count” regarding his running. Meyer has acknowledged that Miller is going to have to run the ball plenty, but no one wants to see the quarterback getting himself in trouble against UAB.
Simon has a shoulder issue, but he’s more likely to play quarterback himself than he is to let the coaches make him stay on the sideline. Meyer said Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett are also battling injuries and that their status is uncertain.
It’s a good week to get the backups in, but that depends on the starters taking care of business. Jordan Hall returned to the lineup last week and should be better for it this week, and he can share the running load with Meyer. Ohio State wants the passing game to click and the offensive line to flex its muscle.
Still, a series with the starters for backup quarterback Kenny Guiton — or at least couple plays — might not be out of the question and might also not be a bad idea.
3. Tackling isn’t the only issue for the defensive front seven
Michael Bennett is still missing from the lineup with a groin injury. Nathan Williams played a bunch last week while he’s still getting up to speed. Simon never left the field, and big Johnathan Hankins rarely did.
Combine that with the linebackers missing tackles and Storm Klein being inserted into the lineup late in what was his first game of the season, and the Buckeyes don’t really have a rotation. They did rack up six sacks last week, but they’d like to see more bodies and lower snap counts at this point.
Meyer said that right now, freshmen defensive linemen Washington and Spence are much better as pass rushers than they are against the run. Both were in the game at crunch time last week.
“Adolphus Washington is going to be really special,” Meyer said.
The linebacking crew — both its play and the personnel on the field in big moments — will be watched closely going forward. If the big plays keep coming, the undefeated season won’t last.
4. Miller’s been great. The running game could be better.
Carlos Hyde will miss at least another week with his knee sprain. A week after Meyer ran only Miller and Hall — minus a single slot carry by Corey “Philly” Brown — the Buckeyes might go back to one of their bigger, younger backs. Meyer said Rod Smith has “earned the right to touch that ball.”
More than keeping Miller from taking too many hits is keeping defenses guessing. Hall getting healthy and comfortable should help his move to more of the “pivot” position, and fullback Zach Boren has proven he can help create running lanes on the inside. Meyer said the Buckeyes have to be ready for defenses to force Miller to pitch it rather than keep it in the option game, and some tough defenses will be waiting as the season progresses.
5. There’s no such thing as a perfect game. A clean game would be nice.
The goal isn’t to run up a certain score or necessarily to force a certain amount of turnovers. The Buckeyes want to be crisp and efficient while staying healthy and having plenty to build on.
Last week, they left the stadium with the feeling of having survived more than they won. That speaks to high standards and isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Meyer wants better. Besides tackling and the receivers making another step forward, he wants to eliminate the kind of personal foul penalties that had center Corey Linsley running in the sand pits after Wednesday’s practice and the kind of big plays that got Bigelow on highlight shows nationwide.
Position coaches dicate punishment for personal fouls, Meyer said. The coach is left to publicly lament them — and each of the 21 penalties on Ohio State the last two weeks.
“We didn’t score for four drives after (Linsley) did that,” Meyer said.
If the Buckeyes can spread the ball around, stay turnover free and limit self-inflicted mistakes, the starters can watch the fourth quarter Saturday from the sidelines and feel good about being 4-0 heading to East Lansing.