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Friday, June 21, 2024

Does No. 2 Ohio State have a flaw in the offense?


Prior to Ohio State’s trip to Happy Valley in mid-October, head coach Ryan Day was asked about the state of his team’s rushing attack following an underwhelming output in the blowout win over Iowa

The Buckeyes were held to 66 yards on 30 attempts by a Hawkeyes defense that is talented, certainly, but that wilted to the tune of 172 yards and two scores in a loss to Michigan earlier in the month.

Starting tailback TreVeyon Henderson ran 11 times for 38 yards, while fellow running back Miyan Williams carried 10 times for 19 yards and a touchdown. 

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“I don’t know if concerned is the right thing,” Day said in his postgame news conference. “But we’re going to have to go back and figure out how we run the ball better, that’s for sure, and figure out how we’re going to do that.”

Later in the week, as Ohio State prepared for the Nittany Lions’ strong run defense, Day said part of the solution to the Buckeyes’ rushing woes involved getting Henderson and Williams back to full health. Both players had bounced in and out of the lineup through the first few weeks, and the season-opening victory over Notre Dame was the only time each tailback logged 15 snaps in the same game to that point in the season. 

“We’ve got them both healthy now, so that’s good,” Day said. “We’re getting ourselves back into a rhythm of them both playing because it’s been a couple weeks since we’ve had them both in (the lineup).”

The good fortune proved short-lived. Williams dropped out of the win over Penn State after suffering an arm injury on his second snap, though he was able to return the following week. Henderson played a starring role in the fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions, but reportedly aggravated a foot injury that kept him off the field last Saturday against Northwestern. His status for this weekend’s date with Indiana is unclear. 

Here’s the Week 11 scouting report in the Big Ten:

The matchups

Indiana (3-5, 1-6 Big Ten) at No. 2 Ohio State (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET on FOX
Odds: Buckeyes by 40 (per FOX Bet, as of Thursday afternoon)

Purdue (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) at No. 21 Illinois (7-2, 4-3 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET
Odds: Illini by 6.5

Rutgers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) at Michigan State (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET on Big Ten Network
Odds: Spartans by 9.5

Nebraska (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) at No. 3 Michigan (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten)
Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Odds: Wolverines by 31

Maryland (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) at No. 14 Penn State (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten)
Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX
Odds: Nittany Lions by 10

Wisconsin (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) at Iowa (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten)
Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1
Odds: Badgers by 1

Northwestern (1-8, 1-5 Big Ten) at Minnesota (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten)
Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network
Odds: Gophers by 17.5

Game of the week: Indiana vs. No. 2 Ohio State

The matchup between the Buckeyes and Hoosiers features two teams in desperate need of bounce-back performances for entirely different reasons.

For Indiana, which resides in the basement of the Big Ten East, head coach Tom Allen is looking for something — anything — to instill hope in a group that has lost six consecutive games by an average of 16.5 points per defeat. In a broader sense, the program’s free fall includes 16 defeats in a stretch of 21 games. The last time the Hoosiers won consecutive games was the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

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“It’s a challenge for sure when you have continuous setbacks that are tough,” Allen said in his weekly news conference. “But you share with them from your heart to theirs. You motivate them, you encourage them, challenge them. You appeal to the core of who you are and why you do what you do.

“The conversation and the challenge I gave to our team this morning in our team meeting was really around that focus of the core of your individual character and what makes you persevere when things are hard, which is really one of the huge benefits of being an athlete is having this preparation process that we go through. As hard as it is and as challenging as it is — and right now it’s difficult on everybody in this program — you appeal to that, and you continue to do things that you believe in.”

For Ohio State, which remained ahead of rival Michigan in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, the primary goal is to win the next two games convincingly enough for the selection committee to look favorably on the Buckeyes regardless of what happens in the season finale on Nov. 26. Assuming Ohio State and Michigan both arrive at that game unbeaten, the loser will be clamoring for a ticket to the playoff as a one-loss qualifier. How soundly the teams win between now and then will matter.

The optical differences between their performances last week invited discussion over whether the Wolverines should leapfrog the Buckeyes in the rankings. Where Michigan responded to its 17-14 deficit at Rutgers with a blistering second half to secure a 52-17 win, Ohio State was unable to pull away from Northwestern in adverse weather conditions and nursed a one-score lead into the fourth quarter.

Day’s team is a massive favorite over the Hoosiers this week and needs to live up to the spread.

“We have to focus on beating Indiana this week,” Day said, “but the way we approach it is we’re working on that (Michigan) game every day of the year.”

Player to watch: Wisconsin DT Keeanu Benton (6-3⅞, 312 pounds)

The Badgers have won three of four games since head coach Paul Chryst was fired in early October and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard received the interim title. A defense that was gouged for 52 points by Ohio State and 34 points by Illinois before the coaching change responded by allowing just 13.7 PPG in wins over Northwestern, Purdue and Maryland.

Central to the defensive turnaround is Benton, a senior defensive lineman from Janesville, Wisconsin, near the Illinois border. Benton started all 13 games at nose tackle last season and recorded five tackles for loss, 2½ sacks and two forced fumbles. NFL scouts who passed through Madison during the spring gave him a preliminary third-round draft grade, and Benton’s stock has likely risen from there.

With three sacks through the first nine games, Benton has already exceeded his total from 2021. He’s also matched the 21 quarterback pressures he amassed last year and has only half as many missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Benton and edge rusher Nick Herbig (eight sacks, 12½ tackles for loss) form a potent inside-out combination for the Badgers.

“A guy like Keeanu changes the math inside,” Leonhard said after the win over Maryland. “He can dominate his matchups consistently, and he forces teams to put a lot of attention on him, which helps your linebackers run.”

Unsung hero: Michigan ILB Michael Barrett

It’s been quite a journey for Barrett since arriving at Michigan in 2018 following a high school career as a dual-threat quarterback. Barrett quickly found a home at the “viper” spot in former defensive coordinator Don Brown’s system. His responsibilities blurred the lines between safety and linebacker, just like Barrett’s 5-foot-11, 221-pound frame straddled the fence between the positions. He logged the third-most snaps of any defensive player during Michigan’s pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and finished third on the team in tackles with 44.

But Brown was fired after a calamitous 2-4 season, and Barrett’s spot in the starting lineup went with him. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald overhauled the scheme and preferred inside linebackers Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson as running mates alongside veteran Josh Ross. Barrett, who hardly saw the field in the first half of the season, played more snaps on special teams (258) than he did from scrimmage (187).

Though he could have left following Michigan’s loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff last December, Barrett returned for a fifth season with the goal of securing more playing time. He battled with Hill-Green and fellow inside linebacker Kalel Mullings throughout spring practice and fall camp to earn a starting role alongside Colson, who received Freshman All-America honors in 2021. Barrett is averaging 35.6 snaps per game this season and ranks second on the team with 2½ sacks. He snagged two interceptions in last week’s win over Rutgers and returned one of them 31 yards for a touchdown.

Injury report

— Nebraska QB Casey Thompson (arm): The transfer from Texas will miss his second consecutive game with an injury to his throwing arm. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph told reporters Thompson is dealing with a nerve injury in his elbow after taking a hit in the loss to Illinois on Oct. 29. Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy earned the start last week against Minnesota but completed just six of 16 passes for 41 yards and an interception. Fellow backup Logan Smothers was inserted for certain drives in the second half and threw for 80 yards with a 50% completion rate.

— Michigan QB Cade McNamara (leg): McNamara suffered an undisclosed leg injury in Michigan’s blowout win over UConn in mid-September and hasn’t played since. Head coach Jim Harbaugh said McNamara would miss some time but offered no specifics about the nature of the injury or a potential timeline for recovery. Earlier this week, McNamara posted a photo on social media from what appeared to be a hospital bed with a caption indicating he underwent some kind of procedure.

— Maryland WR Rakim Jarrett (lower leg): The Terrapins’ leading receiver dropped out of last week’s loss to Wisconsin with a lower-leg injury and did not return. Jarrett, who has a team-high 34 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns, avoided structural damage to his leg, according to head coach Mike Locksley, and will be a game-time decision for Saturday’s matchup with Penn State.  

Numbers game

2: The number of teams that rank among the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense this season. One is Ohio State, which ranks first in offense (45.8 points per game) and eighth in defense (15.8 points per game). The other is Michigan, which ranks fifth in offense (42.2 points per game) and third in defense (12.1 points per game).

8: The number of rushing touchdowns for Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton, both of whom have tied Penn State’s single-season freshman record. Allen has carried 108 times for 558 yards (5.2 yards per rush), while Singleton has carried 112 times for 679 yards (6.1 yards per rush).

.830: The collective winning percentage for Wisconsin in the month of November since 2010, a stretch in which the Badgers have won 39 of 47 games. The only Power 5 schools with better November winning percentages during that time are Ohio State (.870), Georgia (.860) and Oklahoma (.837). Wisconsin sits one game behind Illinois in the Big Ten West standings.

9: The number of touchdowns Illinois’ defense has allowed on 114 drives through the first nine games, including just seven touchdowns in its last 90 possessions. Indiana and Michigan State remain the only opponents to score points on consecutive drives against the Illini this season.

139: The number of career receptions for Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta, the most in school history at that position. LaPorta also ranks second in school history for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,587. He leads the Big Ten in receptions (44) and receiving yards (458) this year among tight ends. On a national level, LaPorta’s receptions are the fourth-most of any tight end and his yardage is fifth.

Read more:

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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