Thursday’s press conference with Ryan Day can be seen in the player above
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State is one month removed from playing No. 2 Michigan in its last game, which ended as a 45-23 loss. Next up is the defending national champions and top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the college football playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta Saturday night.
The Buckeyes have had more than 30 days to practice the adjustments on both sides of the ball they will have to execute to upset Georgia. Ohio State is embracing the underdog role for this game and could have a new hero arise in Atlanta with major stars out with injuries.
With kickoff taking place a few hours before 2023 arrives and legalized sports gambling in the Buckeye state with it, Ohio State is betting on itself to recreate the run of the last Buckeye team to enter the playoff as the lowest seed.
Biggest challenge for the defense
Forty-two points conceded. Five 45-plus-yard touchdowns allowed. Five hundred and 30 yards surrendered. These are the numbers the Buckeyes defense has lived with the past month after its loss to Michigan and it’s made them practice “pissed off” in preparation for Georgia.
It’s no doubt the biggest area of improvement for Ohio State is not allowing explosive play touchdowns, particularly from the secondary. “It’s explosive plays really. That’s what it came down to . . . something we had been very good at when you look at the season as a whole. Not systematic but too many explosives,” OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “You have to look at those from an individual basis. We deal with those as a defense together because those are the critical factors in winning the game.”
On those five explosive touchdowns from Michigan, the safeties and cornerbacks were barely visible on television screens with either an overcommit to blitzing on the edges, jumping into tackles too early, and keeping its zone coverage to the edges that exposed massive holes in the middle for the Wolverines to run through.
The Bulldogs’ offense is one that can exploit those gaps if the Buckeyes don’t close them with quarterback Stetson Bennett leading an offense loaded with depth at every position. Three different running backs (Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards, and Kendall Milton) have each scored at least six touchdowns with tight end Brock Bowers leading the team in catches, receiving yards, and touchdown catches.
“It’s a complete offense. It’s developed like an NFL offense. They have a bunch of tools at their disposal,” Knowles said. “The effort of that players makes a huge difference.”
This will present the biggest challenge for the OSU defense and, in particular, the defensive backs. Safety Lathan Ransom in particular will be key to containing Georgia’s skill players to prevent those explosive plays.
“There’s a lot of eyes on you at all times and a lot of critics and a lot of people that have some stuff to say,” Ransom said. “But at the end of the day, that’s what you come to Ohio State for.”
If the upset is on the cards, the Buckeyes’ defense cannot afford to allow close to any explosive plays or else it could be another walkover for Georgia to a second straight national title game.
A chance for a new star to emerge
Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson are both not playing in the postseason due to injuries, leaving the Buckeye defense without two of its top offensive weapons.
While Marvin Harrison Jr. and Miyan Williams have stepped in as the top guys in place of Smith-Njigba and Henderson, the Georgia defense likely has devised a scheme that could take both of them out of the game. The Bulldogs’ incredible defense has proved its ability to limit a team’s best playmakers from affecting the game.
Back in its season opener, Georgia held Oregon quarterback Bo Nix to under 200 passing yards and didn’t allow one receiver to eclipse 40 yards. In its highly-anticipated matchup against Tennessee, the Bulldogs held receiver Jalin Hyatt, who won the Biletnikoff Award, to just six catches for 63 yards.
If Harrison Jr. and Williams are shut down, who could step up? On the receiving end, C.J. Stroud will look for Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming, but one player that could rise again is Cade Stover. Since Stover caught six passes in the Buckeyes’ win over Penn State, he has exceeded four catches or 45 yards in a game but when it comes to red zone situations, Stover could be the X-factor to give the Buckeyes points.
“In our world, the tight end position connects the offense together,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. “I think both groups will be huge Saturday night as both teams attack each other.”
From a running standpoint, Saturday is a huge opportunity for freshman Dallan Hayden and junior Chip Trayanum to announce themselves on a national stage. Hayden was untouchable in the win over Maryland with three touchdowns and 146 yards while Trayanum was effective against Michigan with 83 yards on 14 carries.
A new star could certainly emerge in Atlanta win or lose for the Buckeyes but the offense will need to be aggressive to knock Georgia off the mountaintop.
OSU betting on its offense to attack early
The Buckeyes’ offense had numerous stalled drives in the loss to Michigan after getting out to a fast start. With OSU’s greatest strength being its offense, they will bet on themselves to finish out its drives with touchdowns in what could be C.J. Stroud’s last game in scarlet and gray.
Play calling will be crucial in this game for Ryan Day’s side to not allow the offense to lose momentum against a Georgia team that can take others out of games in a flash. From a passing standpoint, Stroud will be accurate with no elements to hinder him with the game at an indoor stadium. But a healthy variety of passing plays will go a long way toward an upset.
Something noticeable in the Buckeyes’ big games of late has been an inability to convert on third down. In its last five games, Ohio State’s third down efficiency is 39% including a 5-16 clip in the loss to Michigan. In those short-yardage situations, the Buckeyes have tried bubble screens to convert with little success. If the run game is effective, that’s something Ohio State might try to avoid losing drives.
“I’m very confident in the talent we do have on offense,” Egbuka said. “I feel like when it comes to us playing any team in the nation, I feel confident with our guys and our ability to sling the rocks.” In the past OSU playoff wins, the quarterbacks and running backs put up monster numbers. That can happen on Saturday with consistent and creative play calling.