Ohio State defense must shore up the middle of the field against Nebraska

Ohio State defense must shore up the middle of the field against Nebraska

NCAA

Ohio State defense must shore up the middle of the field against Nebraska

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The Buckeyes might have gotten rid of the sour taste left in the mouth of Ohio State fans after a tough loss to Penn State in Saturday’s win against Northwestern.

That doesn’t mean that even after being ranked sixth in the latest AP Poll, that fans aren’t screaming for a breath mint this Monday as they prepare for their Buckeyes to face ninth-ranked Nebraska at home.

The Cornhuskers, who dropped a heartbreaker to Wisconsin on Saturday, are one of just two marquee games remaining on the Ohio State schedule.

A team that Ohio State has a lot to prove against in the eyes of Buckeye Nation, after offensive and defensive struggles translated into a four-point win at home.

Northwestern found a way to slash and dice the ninth best pass defense in the county, even though they gained just 258 passing yards.

They did it by using the passing game, specifically the middle of the field, to maintain possession of the football.

All eight of the Wildcat’s third-down conversions came via the interior pass. They all played a major role in Northwestern advancing the football in their four scoring drives. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t care about total yardage, big plays, or yards per catch.

He saw a weakness in safety play, specifically on slant coverage and took advantage of it.

In the first quarter, during a 16-play scoring drive that ate 6:45 off the clock, the Wildcats scored their first touchdown on a 75-yard drive that featured two third-down conversion passes that went for eight yards or more.

It was capped on a third-down pass from Clayton Thorson to Garrett Dickerson that set up a fourth down conversion to Dickerson that was completed at the goal line.

On their next possession, Northwestern marched 82 yards and settled for a field goal when their only third down completion of the drive was incomplete to Austin Carr at the Ohio State six-yard line.

Six of the 12 plays plays during the drive were pass plays. In total, 33 of the 82 yards gained were in the air. Another 32 came from a Thorson run that started as a pass play from the shotgun. The sophomore dashed right past the block O in the middle of the field to help set up the field goal.

Down seven in the third quarter, Northwestern went back to the passing the ball in the middle of the field to even things up with 3:49 to play in the frame.

The 10-play drive consisted of eight passes in the interior and another third down pass that led to a fourth down conversion through the air.

It led to an Austin Carr reception for 35 yards that would have been ruled a touchdown if Fitzgerald and company gave the officiating crew enough time to review the play.

Carr compiled 65 yards in just two pass plays. Throughout the night, he had 8 receptions, 158 yards and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch — all inside the slot.

On their final scoring drive that lasted 16 plays, the Wildcats had to settle for a field goal after eating more than six minutes of clock in the fourth.

Ten of those plays were of the passing variety.

In total on scoring drives, the Wildcats ran 54 plays. 61 percent of them were passing plays, yet they were able to eat 21:12 of clock just on the sustained drives that turned into points.

With the same amount of scoring drives, the Buckeyes maintained possession for 17:41. That might not seem like a major difference, but it helps define not only the struggles the Buckeyes had defensively with the interior pass.

The Wildcats were able to set a tone with their possession of the football by throwing it.

In the meantime, the offense was forced to forge an identity to match the play presented by the Northwestern offense early in the second half. The solid decision-making by Thorson through his ability to extend plays, forced Ohio State’s defense and offense on their heels.

He did it by targeting the opening man and not worrying about gaining just 5.9 yards per attempt — his second lowest total in Big Ten play this season.

So how does that affect the Buckeyes this week against at team in Nebraska that runs the ball 61 percent of the time?

It’s simple.

The less you force Tommy Armstrong to make plays deep with his arm, the less opportunities the Buckeyes will have to force a turnover. All seven of the senior’s interceptions have come on first and second down. Of his 140 completions on those downs, 35 percent have been for 10 yards or more.

Did I mention that The Cornhuskers have one of the best slot receivers in the county in Jordan Westerkamp?

A player who had averaged over 18 yards per catch this season.

Whether Northwestern’s win was a character-building experience in your eyes or a poor display of football talent, adjustments have to be made by the Ohio State defense if they want to shuck the corn off the husk of Nebraska’s hopes at Ohio Stadium.

It will be depended on if the Buckeyes plan to turn in a signature win heading into the final stretch of the season.

If not, Ohio State fans might taste the nastiness of another close game in the fourth quarter that ends on the wrong side of a successful last-minute drive.

Eye on the Playoff Prize

No matter how fans feel about the four-point win against Northwestern on Saturday, the national media believes that Ohio State deserves to be considered one of two teams in the CFP picture on the outside looking in.

This week’s AP poll has Ohio State once again ranked at #6 behind Alabama, Michigan, Clemson, Washington and Louisville.

The Buckeyes will take on ninth-ranked Nebraska, while Alabama travels to Tiger Stadium to face #15 LSU. The Wolverines will host unranked Maryland and Clemson will welcome unranked Syracuse to rub Howard’s rock. Washington will travel to Cal, while Louisville will battle Boston College on the road.

With that schedule in mind, it looks like Ohio State will be on remain on the outside looking in, heading into the first CFP rankings of the season in Tuesday.

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