COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — There was measurable improvement from Ohio State in a 45-12 victory over Arkansas State last Saturday, as an offense that looked a beat slow in an opening win over Notre Dame put it into high gear against the Red Wolves, amassing 538 yards and averaging nearly 10 yards per play.
Though they are once again prohibitive favorites, the Buckeyes should face a tougher challenge from visiting Toledo at 7 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium. The Rockets have equaled OSU’s 2-0 start, allowing just 10 points in wins over Long Island and Massachusetts.
Ohio State has won all three previous games against Toledo, though the last was a 27-22 nailbiter in 2011, with the Buckeyes stopping the Rockets at the OSU 16-yard line with under a minute to play. The Buckeyes are 35-1 all-time against the MAC and have outscored its last two league opponents (Miami in 2019 and Akron last year) by an average of 70-6.
Ohio State is averaging 7.59 yards per play, which is 10th best nationally. Toledo is allowing a nation’s best 2.80 yards per game defensively.
Something will have to give.
A welcome return
Coach Ryan Day hinted that star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba seems likely to play against the Rockets, though he did caution that the Buckeyes won’t roll him out until he’s “100 percent.” Marvin Harrison Jr. stepped up last weekend in Smith-Njigba’s absence, grabbing seven passes for 184 and three touchdowns and showing that he has what it takes to be a big-time player.
As good as Harrison was, the offense just operates on a different level when Smith-Njigba is healthy.
“We’re a different team when Jaxon is in there. (Next man up) has been good for the longevity of the offense, the depth of the offense,” Day said.
He also mentioned that Julian Fleming should be available after missing the first two games.
The Buckeyes will not rest on their laurels or look ahead to Big Ten play, which begins Sept. 24 at home against Wisconsin.
“[Toledo] is a very good team. They certainly gave Notre Dame all they could handle last year,” Day said. “We’ve got to do a great job making sure that we’re preparing just like any other week, and it’s the same message. The message is that it’s about us, and we have to make sure that we’re building every week and getting stronger every week.”
Ohio State’s offense was expected to put up big numbers, but the revelation through two games has been the defense. It’s allowing 4.27 yards per play, among the top 30 nationally, and has allowed just one rushing touchdown and 2.02 yards per carry, a figure that ranks ninth nationally. Ohio State’s linebackers and defensive interior have been the primary reason teams have found it tough rushing the football, with Tommy Eichenberg (14 tackles) and Michael Hall Jr. (7 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) the main reasons why.
The Buckeyes have taken to the scheme of new coordinator Jim Knowles, and Day hopes they continue along that path.
“The more our guys can feel comfortable in the new scheme, the better off we’re gonna be moving forward,” Day said.
Huge opportunity for Rockets
The appetizers are gone, and in their place is the main course – a big fish, you might say.
Toledo has looked good early, but things ratchet up as they travel south to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes. The jump in class is not lost on Rockets coach Jason Candle.
“The challenge for us is to take the jump from Week 2 to 3 here, and obviously, this opponent this week is a monster,” he said. “This is a tremendous challenge for us, a program we have a lot of respect for and coaching staff we have a lot of respect for. … It’ll be a great opportunity for our guys to go down there and compete in a great environment.”
In-state showdowns are often a test of talent vs. desire. No one would say the Rockets are anywhere close to the Buckeyes in terms of ability and five-star recruits, but they can hang their hats on grit and the fact that many grew up rooting for Ohio State but were passed over in the recruiting process.
“I think our guys look forward to playing in these types of games,” Candle said. “Our guys are mostly from the state of Ohio or a four-hour footprint here, so they know the tradition and they have respect for what goes on in Columbus — or South Bend, Indiana, last year or the University of Michigan last year — or any of these places, and probably most of these guys wanted to be recruited by these types of places. I think it’s an opportunity for them to go and play on that stage, something that doesn’t happen every weekend.”
The Rockets are second nationally in pass defense and have not yet allowed a touchdown, but that will be tested against Ohio State, which has six passing TDs.
Former Buckeyes linebacker Dallas Gant leads the way for that Toledo unit, with 20 tackles. Preseason all-MAC choices Desjuan Johnson (13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss) and Jamal Hines (13 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 pass breakup) have excelled, but the team isn’t only defense. Dequan Finn is in the top 20 in total quarterback rating, according to ESPN, passing for three TDs and an interception and rushing for 138 yards and three TDs.
The task for Toledo is monumental, but all it has to do is look back at last week in college football to find that nothing is impossible. Marshall beat Notre Dame, Appalachian State took down Texas A&M, and Georgia Southern knocked off Nebraska, all on the road.
“College football is college football,” Candle said. “Every Saturday is a task in itself and has its own set of challenges. We respect everything that goes on at Ohio State. I think we understand there are challenges each and every week and you’ve got to do a good job preparing for those. And this has its own set of things you’ve got to deal with, so we’ll handle them throughout the week and go put our best foot forward.”
Too many flags
Day has been pleased with most of what the Buckeyes have done, but one thing that has raised his ire is the lack of attention to detail. They average 80 yards in penalties, which ranks 117th nationally. They have gotten away with the sloppy play to this point, but may not be so fortunate if things aren’t cleaned up.
“Any time you have a penalty that you can control, especially presnap, those are the ones that are inexcusable,” Day said. “There’s certain things that happen, playing hard. There’s going to be penalties, but there’s some that are controllable, and those are the ones who got to do a better job with.”
Ohio State saw a punt return touchdown come off the board last week against Arkansas State due to a penalty for leaping over the Red Wolves protection pile, a penalty that has prompted a change in philosophy from the punt block/coverage team.
“We lost a possession there. And that’s something that, in a closer game, could be the difference between winning and losing,” Day said. “And not only that, we returned that punt for a touchdown. There’s been a lot of work put into that to try to get back to flipping the game by returning a punt for a touchdown.
“That hasn’t happened in a little while here. All very discouraging, but we’re gonna have to learn from it. And the rule is that you can’t jump in and land onto the shield, so we’re certainly not going to jump anymore.”
It may seem like nitpicking when a team is undefeated, but leaving the little details unaddressed will allow them to continue. It will be a point of emphasis in practice during the week.
“Either you’re accepting it or coaching it,” Day said. “It’s being addressed. We have our ways of doing that. A lot of it is coaching or technique, but a lot of it isn’t. It’s not going to be accepted moving forward.”