Saturday is a day all Bearcat fans have been looking forward to, as UC gets a chance at one of the Ohio State Universities (the Columbus Branch). Nobody disagrees that Ohio State has been the premier college football program in the state of Ohio, but as the other major University in the state Bearcat fans believe this game should be played more often (hell I believe in basketball it should be played every year and in football I’d like it to be played on a home and home basis). Sadly, this game does not get played often and because of OSU being scared to play it in Cincinnati the game got moved back to Columbus. Because the game is played so rarely, a win here would be that much sweeter.
However, winning in Columbus will be a tall order. Though Ohio State struggled against Virginia Tech, this is still an immensely talent team with blue chippers all over the field. The Buckeyes freshman QB has gained valuable experience already and will be much better than he was in Ohio State’s early loss. This is former Bearcat Urban Meyer’s third year at Ohio State and the Buckeyes have only lost 3 games in that time. Given some of the Bearcat’s struggles early this season winning may seem like a daunting task, but I believe there is a formula for success that the Bearcats are equipped to achieve. If the Bearcats perform at the high level they are capable of, in many ways they may be a very difficult matchup for Ohio State.
To me the biggest matchup in this game is the UC wide receivers vs. the Ohio State defensive backs. Make no mistake, this will be the best set of wide receivers the Buckeyes face in the 2014 regular season. Going into the season the biggest question on the Ohio State roster (prior to the injury to Braxton Miller) was whether the Ohio State secondary could be better than last season. So far this year Ohio State ranks forth nationall in pass defense, but that number may largely be a result of who they have played. Ohio State started with a Navy team that never throws the ball, then played a Virginia Tech team breaking in a new QB (and one that has rarely been known as a prolific passing offense) and then played a completely outclassed Kent State team. So while Buckeyes fans may be encouraged by the secondary so far, this will be the first true test of the season.
Last season the Buckeyes ranked 121st in pass defense and the Buckeyes didn’t exactly play a murderer’s row of passing offenses. Yea, Clemson was loaded in the bowl game, but teams like Michigan State, Michigan, Cal and to a lesser extent Northwestern and Illinois weren’t amazing passing teams and all of them were able to gash the Buckeye secondary, at times, through the air. This is an area that Ohio State cannot feel 100% comfortable with, despite the solid start and the Bearcats have the talent to exploit it. In the first game the Bearcats had 6 different wide receivers catch TD passes. The Bearcats have had 9 different receivers (plus 2 running backs and a tight end) catch passes in their 2 games. They have size, speed and burst from their receivers. This is a talented group that will absolutely test the Ohio State secondary.
For the Bearcats to beat Ohio State they are going to have to challenge the Buckeye secondary consistently. They are going to need to get first downs and keep the defense off the field for extended periods of time. Gunner is going to need some time to throw, but he’ll need to take advantage of a strong group of receivers and hopefully an Ohio State secondary that still has issues. I think the run will have to be a secondary option against Ohio State. Their defensive line is too good to simply try to run at them regularly. If the passing game is working and the Bearcats are exposing the secondary, I believe the running game can offer a good change of pace and can be an area of strength for the Bearcats.
Offensively the Bearcats have shown flashes of being incredibly explosive this year (particularly the first half against Toledo), but defensively has been a struggle so far. I think Ohio State is too good offensively for UC to shut them down. Their offensive line will be a big advantage and Meyer has traditionally boasted some of the best rushing attacks in the country. Despite that, UC has talent and speed on defense. If the Bearcats defense plays a solid game and show significant improvement from the first two games, they can slow this Buckeye team down enough to win the game.
My hope is the Bearcats get aggressive with run blitzes and pressure designed to keep Barrett in the pocket. The hope would be to make a few stops on first and second down that put the Buckeyes in third and long situations. I know Ohio State is going to have success running the ball, but some well-timed run blitzes and pressure could get them off schedule. When UC gets OSU off schedule, it must take advantage. Simply put, UC must stop Ohio State on third and long situations if it hopes to leave Columbus with a win.
I also hope to see the Bearcats use a few more man concepts in the secondary this game than the first two games. Many of the chunk plays the first two games were given up where players left their man either not understanding the coverage or thinking there was help in another area. I think man concepts would limit these types of mistakes. I am sure the talented Ohio State receivers will be able to create some separation, but even that will at least require a good read from Barrett and not allow him simply to throw to spots where receivers have been left wide open.
I’ve heard some people speculate that UC was playing vanilla with their defense the first couple of games so as to not put anything on film. I partly agree with this interpretation, but I do not think it was in the hopes of not putting anything on film. I think UC hoped to get acclimated to the new defensive system at game speed. I think they were working on their essential concepts and base defenses. I do not think that style will be enough this week. I think they will have to change it up. They will have to bring pressure at times and will have to give different looks in the secondary. The goal should be to make Barrett beat them in third and long situations.
Additionally, the goal should be to make Barrett beat them by completing multiple passes. Avoiding the chunk plays that plagued UC the first two weeks will be huge. When UC brings some pressure the design of the defense should be such that everything stays in front of their secondary. Sure tackling will be important in these situations. In the Buckeyes loss to VT this year, Barrett was only 9-29. I don’t think the UC defense is capable of that kind of success, but that does show me that making him try to beat them without big plays would be the right strategy.
Lastly, the Bearcat special teams must not kill them. This was an issue last year. I don’t think UC has to be exceptional, but they cannot shank punts, give up big returns or turn the ball over on special teams. Perhaps just as importantly, the field goal kickers must deliver if given an opportunity inside 40 yards. The Bearcats have the talent to win this game, they have areas where they can expose the Buckeye defense, but executing at a higher level than they have so far this year is critical. I think the Bearcats need to score in the mid 30s or higher to win. I have not seen a high enough level of consistent execution yet this season to predict a Bearcat victory. I think they are capable, I think they will score on Ohio State, but I have not seen the defense do enough yet to predict a win.
Prediction: Buckeyes 41 Bearcats 31
(At least I feel decent about my chances of being wrong on this prediction…Go Bearcats)