Changes In Columbus Lead To Success For The Buckeyes

Even though the Ohio State Buckeyes’ lone loss was early in the season, it seems a lot farther away since their play has improved. Is the blemish still there and is it a possible playoff barricade? Both answers are yes, but since that loss to the Oregon Ducks in Columbus on September 11th, we’ve seen more of the Buckeyes we expected in the preseason.

What Changed?

Week 3 against Tulsa was all about experimentation, and even though it wasn’t a dazzling 41-20 victory, the overhaul looked to be much needed.

The most notable was on the defensive side of the ball as defensive coordinator, Kerry Coombs, had to give up play calling duties in favor of Matt Barnes. The defense went to a more conservative look with two deep safeties since the swap, and aside from the seven points surrendered to in-state foe Akron, the Buckeyes only allowed 37 total points to their last three conference opponents.

The emergence of Steele Chambers at the linebacker position provided speed and flexibility to the unit. Also, the secondary looks healthy again and everyone looks committed, from fifth year nickel back Marcus Williamson to true freshman Denzel Burke. Speaking of true freshman, Tyleik Williams, Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau have played meaningful snaps for the defensive line.

I believe the main reasons to the improvement are the Buckeyes’ commitment to run defense and unleashing a ferocious pass rush. The ability to create so many negative plays lately has helped their “Rushmen” package get home on definite passing downs. Over the last four games, the “Silver Bullets” have racked up 20 sacks, averaging five per game.

In the run game, albeit, they played Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana. The numbers are stifling. The three teams combined for 104 carries and only came away with 215 yards total, barely averaging 2.0 yards per carry. This is a huge shift in mentality as we saw Minnesota go for 208 and Oregon for 269 yards on the ground against this same defense in the first two weeks.

Stroud Finds His Stride

Life after Justin Fields was never going to be easy for quarterback C.J. Stroud as there was a Heisman finalist standard to live up to. The first three games saw many errant throws, almost always high, as the youngster never really seemed comfortable. After the spotty Tulsa performance where Stroud went 15-25 and had an ugly interception, head coach Ryan Day decided to rest his quarterback with shoulder soreness.

At face value, it seemed as if a mental rest was needed more so than his shoulder, even though he had visibly been grimacing since a shot he took Week 1 against Minnesota. Buckeye fans all saw his capabilities as a passer in the spring game and with the loaded quarterback room, it was hard not to want another guy to get a shot with the elite weapons at his disposal. Kyle McCord didn’t play too bad against Akron in relief of Stroud but that rest may have awoke the sleeping giant.

Since his return to duty, Stroud has tossed 14 touchdowns and no interceptions, averaging 334 yards per game. He’s throwing with a ton of zip and anticipation, fitting the ball perfectly into windows between the linebackers and safeties. Most notable, is how he’s starting off hot and not forcing Day to implement a scheme to ease him in.

The upcoming Penn State game this Saturday will be the first real test to see if Stroud is up to the challenge. They’re going to be angry after falling to Illinois in the record breaking nine overtime contest last weekend, and they have a ton of punishers on their defense. He’ll need all of his star studded wideouts to win their battles and catch balls which will likely be in traffic all night.

Henderson Hype Train

We can’t finish this without talking about the young superstar TreVeyon Henderson. It only took Day two games to realize it was time to unleash the freshman. In his first start, Henderson produced 277 rushing yards and three touchdowns. That game placed him third all-time for most rushing yards in a single game, trailing only Trey Sermon’s 331 last year in the Big Ten Championship Game and Eddie George’s 314 in 1995.

His sample size has been so small but incredibly dazzling all in one. On only 79 carries, Henderson leads the country in yards per carry with 8.8 and has also punched in 11 touchdowns on the ground. He will likely get a much larger role in the receiving game with teams having to pick their poison against this potent offense.

What’s scary is he’s already scored three touchdowns on only eight receptions, making him a near 50/50 shot to score when he catches the ball. These aren’t simple cake walks into the end zone as all his receiving scores were earned, not given. For example, his 70-yard screen pass scamper at Minnesota, or steamrolling defenders on the wheel route against Maryland was mostly him doing all the work.

Bottom line, if he had the same workload as some of the other backs in the country, he’d be a Heisman front runner. Currently, there are three other backs with exactly 11 touchdowns on the ground, matching Henderson. Their carry totals are 142, 155 and 168, but we’ll look directly at Alabama’s Brian Robinson Jr. who has the 142.

The reasoning is his nearest two competitors in rushing yards are Chez Mellusi from Wisconsin with 692, and the aforementioned Robinson Jr. with 706. Mellusi is only one yard behind Henderson’s 693 which places him 23rd in the country, but he’s also had 139 attempts, 60 more than Henderson! The kid is an elite talent, and as the games start to get tougher down the stretch for the Bucks, don’t be surprised to see him get the full workload.

Looking Ahead

The run game has always been the foundation in Columbus, even if Day has taken the passing attack to new heights since joining the staff. If they want to continue throwing for 300-plus yards every week and leading the country in yards per game, the run game has to keep instilling fear in opposing defenses.

The Buckeyes had to lean on Ezekiel Elliot for their last title as he went for three straight 200-plus yard performances to close out the season. Henderson needs to be the focal point for another title run.

Derek Worley

Sports Analyst

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