Rapp Around: Buckeyes Hint At Capability

By Jeff Rapp, September 4th, 2017

The first full week of college football delivered on a tried and true promise of allowing us to learn much about the teams we follow but certainly not all we need to know.

Take Ohio State’s 49-21 season-opening win at Indiana, for example.

We discovered the second-ranked Buckeyes (1-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten) can indeed find the end zone with new offensive coaches Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day surveying from the press box.

No one expected IU’s defense, even with nine returning starters, to be as menacing as Clemson’s. Still, it was encouraging from an OSU standpoint to see the Buckeyes break into the end zone six times after putting up a goose egg in the 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the end of last season.

Head coach Urban Meyer vowed much would change with the offense and he quickly followed up on that promise by hiring Wilson to run the offense and Day to assist and tutor the quarterbacks after Ed Warinner and Tim Beck left the program to coach elsewhere.

The statistical results were excellent. Senior QB J.T. Barrett tossed for more than 300 yards – 304 to be exact – and was a solid 20 of 35 on his passing attempts. He also ran 13 times for 61 yards and a touchdown to record 365 total yards. That moved his career total to 9,211 total yards, which is tops in school history.

Meanwhile, the running game clicked with true freshman J.K. Dobbins able filling in for normal starter Mike Weber – unless he’s already passing Weber on the depth chart (more on that in a moment). Making his collegiate debut, Dobbins ran for a game-high 181 yards on 29 carries. That was the best first-game showing in program history.

The Hoosiers (0-1, 0-1 in the Big Ten) seemed to match the game hype and energy in the crowd by playing a stellar first half and taking a 14-13 edge to the locker room at the break. After OSU settled for a Sean Nuernberger 27-yard field goal on its opening drive, Indiana answered with an 11-play, 87-yard touchdown march to take a 7-3 lead.

The Buckeyes broke up some of IU’s momentum and Richard Lagow’s passing show with a second-quarter interception. Kendall Sheffield, who was picked on throughout the game, tipped a pass near the goal line right into the hands of safety Jordan Fuller, who returned the ball to near midfield.

The Buckeyes quickly moved to a first-and-goal situation after a long run by Dobbins but against had to settle for another short Nuernberger field goal.

Then the Hoosiers showed they were going to do more than just hang around: They capped a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive with an 8-yard pass from Lagow to Simmie Cobbs, who finished with 11 catches for 149 yards and outclassed OSU defenders all night.

The Buckeyes countered with a long scoring drive finished off by a 1-yard Antonio Williams plunge. Williams also was dealing with a tight hamstring – the same injury that sidelined Weber – but he managed 44 yards on seven carries and two scores on a night when the Buckeyes racked up 292 rushing yards.

Williams found paydirt twice in the season opener.

The third quarter was a continuation of that success as OSU added three more touchdowns – and that was despite a Barrett on-the-money aerial that went right trough the hands of wideout Parris Campbell in the end zone.

Barrett’s 2-yard TD run gave OSU a 20-14 lead. Indiana jumped back in front 21-20 but the Buckeyes took total control from there with the game’s final 29 points – three Barrett TD passes and another short scoring burst from Williams.

Campbell started the dominance and atoned for his previous error by catching a pass off a crossing route in stride and racking 74 yards for the first truly explosive play of the season. Less than three minutes later, Barrett was at it again. He hit Johnnie Dixon on a picturesque 59-yard catch and run, and his two-point conversion run upped the lead to 35-21.

Dixon has become quite a story himself. The junior arrived highly rated but his career had been derailed by injuries until now. His scoring play marked the first TD of his OSU career in his first start.

The defense got back involved with another takeaway as backup defensive tackle Jashon Cornell forced a fumble deep in Indiana territory. One play later, Barrett connected with another promising young receiver, Binjimen Victor, on an 11-yard pass play. Listed 6-4 and 195 pounds, Victor figures to be a top red-zone target going forward.

Members of the defense weren’t thrilled with allowing 25 first downs and 437 total yards. Lagow was effective most of the evening with 410 yards and three TDs, although he needed 65 passes to do it. Plus, the Hoosiers were held to just 17 yards rushing on 27 official attempts.

Tyquan Lewis led a valiant effort up front with a pair of sacks, upping his career total to 18.5. Denzel Ward added four tackles, five pass break-ups and an interception.

Here’s what else we learned from Week 1 of the season – and what we may yet discover:

• Weber better heal up that hammy pronto.

The coaches raved about Dobbins during preseason camp and the young Texan delivered big-time in his first game, first roadie and first conference clash. OSU running backs coach Tony Alford said Dobbins has picked up on all aspects of the position faster than any player he’s ever been around and it’s clear there is confidence in putting No. 2 on the field.

Still, Dobbins is not totally polished yet. He didn’t hit every hole or recognize every defense.

Therefore, Weber still has a very good chance of earning a key role even if he has to share the workload. The Buckeyes will face more sophisticated and talented defenses, and Weber can still win out in the trust department.

“He’s a much more mature player,” Alford said recently of Weber, a redshirt sophomore who racked up 1,000 yards rushing last year. “He’s understanding the bigger picture vs. just what he does. Before I would say, ‘Hey, when you run this route vs. man (coverage), what do you do?’ he would say. ‘Well, I do this,’ but he didn’t understand the why.

“Maybe there was a certain cut coming in behind him and you’ve got to drag a linebacker out of a window or know exactly what the calls for the offensive line to make in certain pass protections. Now he understands what the check is going to be before it’s made, and I don’t know if he knew that last year.

“He’s understanding the big picture now. And obviously his body has gotten faster. Just being more mature in how he handles his day-to-day business.”

That’s all encouraging for Weber, but the lad has to get healthy.

• The secondary still needs a little work.

Ward still looks like a potential elite corner and Sheffield somehow held up to the pounding by IU’s attack to the sidelines, but the the Buckeyes need more help in coverage and sharper play from the safeties. Also, the corners often turned their heads the wrong way to try to sight the ball and didn’t finish well on the ball despite above-average coverage.

Ohio State has size and athleticism in the back end of the defense but has to develop leadership and reliability before this unit can be compared to those of recent years past.

• The Buckeyes are still highly relevant on a national level.

While some college football fans would rather slot Clemson, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin or some other team ahead of Ohio State in the national rankings, the Buckeyes still warrant a high rating and turn on televisions.

In fact, ESPN already has announced that “College GameDay” will be in Columbus for Ohio State’s home opener vs. Oklahoma on Saturday (7:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC). Get ready for Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard and, of course, former Ohio State QB Kirk Herbstreit.

• The Big Ten is pretty good.

Wisconsin overcoming a 10-0 deficit to Utah State and scoring the next 59 points (that number sound familiar?) of the game was more than noteworthy. The game was tied 10-10 at halftime and the entire second half looked like a UW highlight reel. The Badgers are going to be the team to beat in the Big Ten West.

Nebraska also pulled away and dominated in the second half, Penn State rolled, Michigan outclassed Florida, Illinois and Northwestern logged important wins, Rutgers scared Washington, Purdue took Louisville to the wire, Michigan State dominated Bowling Green, Maryland posted a big win at Texas, etc., etc.

The conference needs to apologize to no one right now.