Weber Brings OSU Back To Life

By Jeff Rapp, November 14th, 2017

The refrain of Ohio State football followers during and after the Buckeyes thoroughly dismantled No. 12 Michigan State on Saturday was either “Where did that come from?” or “Where has that been?”

The reference, of course, was to the A-level football the Buckeyes displayed on offense, defense and special teams while putting a 48-3 shiner on visiting Michigan State – a program that has haunted OSU in recent years, most notably in Ohio Stadium.

Clearly, the Buckeyes were noticeably better than they had been in other big games, especially the inexplicable 55-24 defeat at Iowa a week prior to the MSU showing.

Urban Meyer’s team didn’t turn the faucet on until the second half of the season opener at Indiana. It merely dripped in the 31-16 home loss to Oklahoma that followed. And the Buckeyes appeared to be under water in the home tilt with Penn State at the end of October before rallying furiously for a 39-38 victory.

All of Ohio State’s issues came to light at Iowa, and the Buckeyes were blasted off the field at Kinnick Stadium and, we were told, punted from the College Football Playoff outlook.

Now it appears Meyer’s squad has found a new purpose and focus – and it actually may be just in the nick of time.

Ohio State moved up to No. 8 in both major polls and likely will be in a similar position when the CFP rankings are unveiled on Tuesday. No. 1 Alabama could toss Auburn out of the mix and potentially do the same to Georgia in the SEC title game. Clemson and Miami (Fla.) still meet. And Wisconsin is waiting on the Big Ten East winner to try to make its case in the conference championship game.

All of those teams currently rank ahead of Ohio State. All could trend down at some point.

So that takes us back to the original question: Are the Buckeyes suddenly good enough to contend for a national championship?

That’s difficult to answer, but there were some very encouraging developments that arose from the bludgeoning of Sparty. The pass rush came back to life. The coverage in the back end of the defense was as good as it has been all season, and against a very talented MSU receiving corps.

The linebackers played extremely well, which is quite a statement considering starters Jerome Baker and Dante Booker both were held out of the game with concussion symptoms. Tuf Borland manned the middle and plugged running lanes. Chris Worley looked very comfortable back at his old OLB spot. And youngster Malik Harrison had a grow-up game performance by pressuring in the backfield and holding his own in pass coverage.

On special teams, kickoff coverage was the opposite of disaster. Drue Chrisman blasted a 52-yard punt under duress. The return men continue to try to make plays.

That takes us to the offense. At first brush, a critic would point out J.T. Barrett followed up his four-interception debacle at Iowa with two more picks, and that probably should not be swept under the rug.

However, what the Ohio State running attack did to one of the best rushing defenses in the country not only needs to be celebrated, it appears to be a warning sign to near-future OSU opponents: Watch out.

When OSU fans saw that Mike Weber was named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week on Monday, they probably simply responded with “good for him.”

The truth is this is a very good sign for the OSU offense and the team outlook in general.

The Spartans came in allowing just 87.0 yards on the ground per contest, ranking them atop the Big Ten and third nationally in rushing defense. No runner – not Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, not Notre Dame’s Josh Adams, not anyone – had managed to amass more than 67 yards against the 2017 Spartans defense.

But the Buckeyes shredded that unit for 335 yards on the ground including a whopping 162 from Weber on just nine carries.

The redshirt sophomore had a solid 1,000-yard campaign in 2016 but didn’t break off many long runs. When he emerged from preseason camp with a nagging hamstring injury and J.K. Dobbins romped for 181 yards at Indiana, Weber quickly became a secondary performer.

When Weber began to show signs of coming around physically, Meyer hinted at employing a two-back attack but never went to it. Weber usually spelled Dobbins in the second half, causing many fans to wonder why Dobbins didn’t see the football more often.

In fact, after taking just six handoffs at Iowa because of OSU’s predicament, the cry was for Dobbins to become a feature of the offense. Now it’s fairly safe to say Meyer and staff are going to pay more credence to the idea of making both Dobbins and Weber key pieces given what’s ahead both on the schedule and weather-wise.

Dobbins, by the way, added 124 yards on 18 carries against MSU, pushing his total over 1,000 yards in his true freshman season.

Still, it was Weber’s sleek appearance and explosive runs that turned heads. He opened the scoring with a 47-yard burst and alter shot through and past the entire Michigan State defense for a career-best 82-yard scoring run. That dash put OSU up 35-0 in the first half and essentially ended all hope for Sparty.

Barrett added a cool 55 yards on the ground, giving the Buckeyes a three-headed monster to play with – and causing the Big Ten more headaches.

The next victim is cellar-dwelling Illinois on Saturday (3:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC). If Weber follows up, the Illini are about to get Illibucked.