Rapp Around: Buckeyes Can’t Keep Pace

By Jeff Rapp, September 10th, 2017

Moments after witnessing the carnage of a 31-16 Oklahoma win over Ohio State in the Horseshoe and then trying to discern what exactly happened during postgame interviews, I had to head back up to the press box to gather my computer and stat sheets that were even more blunt than the Sooners’ dominating victory.

On my way out the door and the clock having already struck midnight, I saw a tall, shadowy figure down the corridor.

It was former OSU All-American Jim Lachey, the longtime on-air analyst for the Buckeyes. Jim was a standout guard for Earle Bruce and then was a stud offensive tackle in the NFL. He’s also a gentle giant – the kind of guy you like immediately.

But as we made eye contact, each of us immediately shrugged and forced a pained expression as if we were thinking the exact same thing, which we were: This Ohio State team has a lot of work to do.

“What did you think, Jim?” I asked.

“Urban has a lot of things to figure out,” he said.

I nodded and added, “The better team won the game.”

“That’s for sure,” he replied.

That was it. There wasn’t much else to say.

We saw what everyone else saw, that the Sooners were the more intent and polished team, and that OSU weaknesses were exposed. But as guys who have been around this program for decades, we also saw that Ohio State’s No. 2 ranking was a mirage. This is a team that simply is not up to championship standards, at least not yet.

Urban Meyer felt the same way, but he didn’t feel much like talking about it, either. Pointed question after pointed question led to the same refrain: “Let me watch the film. We just walked off the field 15 minutes ago. I don’t want to overreact.”

Meyer, though, admitted frustration and even a hint of disgust and added, “We’ve got to get the dame thing fixed, and we will” when asked what was going on with the offense.

The intense coach also said quarterback J.T. Barrett has to share in some of the blame but made it very clear he harbors no thoughts of pulling his fifth-year senior.

“I’m never going to point a finger at a quarterback,” he said. “He’s accountable. But without watching the film I have an idea all three phases of the pass game need to improve. There’s not a bull’s-eye on J.T. Barrett.”

Of course, this was not the plan, to still be agonizing over the direction and development of the offense. After suffering the first shutout of his head coaching career and realizing changes needed to be made, Meyer went out and snatched up college mastermind Kevin Wilson and professional QBs coach Ryan Day.

The first returns were pretty good. Although it took a whole half to get going, Ohio State rolled up 49 points, 596 yards of total offense and achieved true balance in pulling away at Indiana on Aug. 31.

Even though the Buckeyes didn’t connect on the elusive over-the-top pass – Parris Campbell made sure of that when he let a perfectly thrown Barrett aerial slip right through his hands – they still put the Hoosiers away with three second-half touchdowns from the passing game. That included a 74-yard catch-and-run by Campbell and a similar 59-yarder by Johnnie Dixon.

Against Oklahoma, virtually none of that happened. Dixon had just one catch. So did tight end Marcus Baugh. Barrett couldn’t connect with anyone for a passing TD – although Terry McLaurin let a catchable bomb sail right over his left shoulder in the end zone without managing to get a hand on it.

Only one OSU player had a catch of more than 17 yards – Austin Mack, who made an acrobatic 31-yard reception near the sideline that had to be confirmed by review. Barrett threw that ball a little high but Mack made an impressive adjustment.

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, those type of plays were all too rare – a fact made more glaring as Oklahoma superstar quarterback Baker Mayfield was putting on a show on the other side of the field.

The hyperkinetic Mayfield was a marvel while paying back the Buckeyes – and then planting the OU flag at midfield afterward. Even without star tight end Mark Andrews – one of the nation’s top receiving targets – for most of the game, No. 6 was 27 of 35 for 386 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Ohio State’s stellar defensive line pressured him but managed to yank him down just twice all night.

Actually, Sam Hubbard’s sack looked like a straight keeper play. Nick Bosa’s sack of Mayfield on the Oklahoma 2 with the Buckeyes leading 13-10 in the third quarter should have put the Buckeyes (1-1) in position to get control of the game. Instead, Mayfield got his team out of the hole with a 16-yard completion on the next play and then led the Sooners (2-0) on a swift four-play, 92-yard TD drive moments later for a 17-13 lead that the visitors wouldn’t relinquish.

The elite QBs in college football right now include Mayfield, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold on the top line. Barrett, no matter what part of the regression is his fault or lies elsewhere, is now clearly below that line.

It appears he’s trying to help his receivers out too much by waiting for them to be completely turned before throwing the ball, which might be why his third-quarter rollout throw to Bin Victor was late and he suffered an interception on a sit route in the fourth quarter.

The wideouts aren’t helping. They are still inconsistent with their routes and not popping open. The protection, especially on the right side, is still a work in progress. The play calling seems disjointed. In fact, Barrett was without his best friend on Saturday night – a potent run game.

Meyer commented that both Indiana and Oklahoma dropped lots of defenders into coverage throughout the first two games. That is an invitation to slam J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, now apparently healthy, into retreating safeties and linebackers.

A week after rambling for 181 yards, Dobbins only had 13 carries, including four in the first half. Weber had 29 yards on just three carries. Barrett, meanwhile, took off with the ball 18 times for a net of only 66 yards (3.7 per tote).

The Buckeyes tried to beat the hottest team in college football by playing Oklahoma football instead of ramming the ball down their throats. The result was a different kind of “balance” – 183 passing yards and 167 rushing yards.

The Sooners ran just enough – 37 attempts – to get their sophisticated attack in motion. They hit outs, curls, dump-offs, post routes, found seams in the defense and even executed a jailbreak screen to perfection. They looked like a top-five team playing with great motivation. The Buckeyes did not.

But that claim isn’t based solely on a comparison of passing schemes. The Buckeyes, as stated at the outset, have work to do in a lot of areas. Here are just a few:

• There are holes in the defense.

Ohio State’s linebacking corps certainly doesn’t look elite at this point and outside ‘backer Dante Booker is yet to find his niche. He got caught in bad position throughout and had just three tackles vs. OU – two of them coming very late when the Sooners were keeping the ball between the hashes to melt the clock.

A former “Mr. Football” in Ohio, Booker is a tall, athletic LB who can run but hasn’t shown the tenacity and instincts that made him a high school phenom.

Meanwhile, Damon Arnette continues to have major struggles at corner. Granted, Arnette is still a young player and doesn’t look timid when it comes to competing. There is still hope he can become an asset on the field.

However, he’s simply getting beat with regularity now and making mistakes like his horrid pass-interference penalty on Saturday. If he doesn’t turn it around soon, he’s on the path to being OSU’s next Armani Reeves instead of the Buckeyes’ next future pro.

Arnette, of course, is not alone. Kendall Sheffield also has been picked on in the early going and isn’t making Alabama fans regret his decision to leave. It may be time to take a serious look at freshman Jeffrey Okudah, who wears No. 1 for a reason.

• More leadership needs to emerge.

Barrett, Billy Price and Chris Worley all came up to postgame interviews and faced the music, which is a good thing. However, there are six other Ohio State captains. We don’t know if they have fire in their bellies, too. We don’t know why some of them were even named captain.

When a team needs to roll up its sleeves and turn around its season after an early loss – as the 2014 national champions did – that isn’t going to happen just from coaching adjustments and the same few players dedicating themselves to success. This team needs to show more heart and quit relying on its talent.

• Ohio State’s linemen need coached up.

While the D-line is active and hard to handle, several of them got caught out of position against a well-designed OU offense. Some twists and stunts were too late – Mayfield already had that ball zipped out of there – and the ends and outside linebackers sometimes lost contain.

The line still has great potential and has done an admirable job against the run, but teams like Iowa, Penn State and Michigan have the type of personnel to offset – and occasionally expose – all that aggression.

On offense, left guard Michael Jordan and Price, OSU’s preseason All-American center, appeared to have very solid performances while Jamarco Jones also held up relatively well – although the Sooners tested him repeatedly with multiple attackers coming from different angles. The right side, however, is not rounding into form.

Isaiah Prince continues to look overmatched against marquee opponents and Branden Bowen needs to pick it up if he wants to hang onto his right guard spot.

• There’s not a lot of rhythm right now with the OSU offense.

That was admitted repeatedly by Meyer and Wilson after the Oklahoma game. They want the Buckeyes to play fast and move with efficiency. For the most part, that isn’t happening.

The second half began ideally. In fact, the pace and execution appeared to cause Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo to fake an injury when the Buckeyes zipped the ball deep into the red zone. It didn’t work. On the next play, Dobbins shot forward 6 yards for his first collegiate touchdown.

But for whatever reason, that tempo and ease lifted away.

I asked Price, who is on pace to start in more games than any other Buckeye in history, how rhythm is attained. He made an excellent point by reminding that can come from doing the little things well, like picking up a first down on second-and-2 instead of letting it get to third-and-one. Or making quicker decisions. Executing better. Hitting blocks. Avoiding penalties.

There’s plenty of time for improvement but right now the offense is not marching – and neither are the Buckeyes.