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September 10, 2013

THE OSU Review: Week Two, San Diego State

Heavy are the heads that bear lofty early season rankings. And even though the AP dinged the Buckeyes for their lackluster showing in Week One (dropping them to No. 3 behind Oregon), and now again to No. 4 after Week Two behind a deserving Clemson, Urban Meyer's win streak continues while his team bears the weight of high expectations with few opportunities to truly prove itself.

It was a longer, more restless week than previously expected in Columbus, with the Buckeyes feeling like their opening weekend shank on the par-4 10th just derailed what was going to be a nice little round. But as is always the case, the further people get from something, the more perceived perspective they gain. Whereas the immediate fanbase takeaway post-Buffalo was one of hand-wringing about depth and lack of improvement, come midweek, everyone was chalking it up to typical opener rust and getting lazy on a huge lead.

Regardless, the Bulls left a bad taste behind, and the Buckeyes had plenty to attend to on the practice field.
Which brings us to San Diego State. Upon first glance at the schedule, SDSU was supposed to be the early trap game, a nine-win team with a 1,400 yd, 16 TD rusher (Adam Muema) and one of those tricky 3-3-5 (cough, cough) defenses, sneaking in to challenge the Buckeyes right before their cross-country trip to Cal. But Eastern Illinois (of the FCS) showed up in the opener with the second coming of Tony Romo and destroyed SDSU 40-19, turning them over five times and exposing how SDSU seemingly forgot how to play football in the offseason. So instead, Rocky Long and the Aztecs limped into Columbus already seriously embarrassed, and - well, that became something of a trend.

Back in the fold were CB Bradley Roby and RB Rod Smith (suspensions) as well as safety C.J. Barnett (injury). The mission: take the first quarter effort against Buffalo and apply it to four straight against the Aztecs. Message received and mission accomplished, although this game didn't exactly follow the expected script either.

When all was said and done, the Buckeyes added another win, cruising to a huge lead on the legs and arm of their highly capable backup QB and a defense hungry to prove itself.

When Ohio Was on Offense

We all know that feeling: the instant nausea that comes when the whistle blows and the pile disperses only to reveal the team's best player still laid out and writhing on the turf. So it went for the OSU faithful when Braxton Miller ran right on an early QB sweep on fourth-and-2, his tacklers sandwiching him to the ground, twisting his left knee and sending his helmet flying. For the second game in a row, the trainers trotted out to attend to Buckeyes Heisman candidate, only this time it wasn't cramps - this time he rode a cart to the locker room very visibly upset and with a great deal of attention being paid to his left knee.

Luckily for OSU, it was "just" an MCL sprain, and Miller later trotted back out to the sidelines with a brace on. And what's even more fortunate is that they've experienced this before and have a backup who does more than keep the seat warm. Kenny Guiton rode to the rescue last year in the Purdue game after Miller was injured. Down eight with 47 seconds left, the then-junior calmly marched the offense down the field, and, a couple near-picks aside, he rattled off a TD pass with three ticks left, a game-tying two-point conversion, and then helped steer the game-winning TD drive in OT.

On Saturday, Guiton trotted back out to take the reins and confidently went 19/28 for 152 yds and two TDs to go along with 83 yards rushing, most coming on an impressive 44-yard keeper for touchdown. The unit never even skipped a beat, and while Guiton may not be as fast or strong-armed as Miller, the Buckeye offense is in good hands even without its leader - at least against the likes of SDSU.

It's not necessarily that the scheme changes when Guiton comes in, but offensive coordinator Tom Herman obviously went even more read option heavy with his backup in there, mainly because it's something Guiton does extremely well (dare we say better than Miller). On his very first play, Guiton optioned left and quickly pitched out to speedster Dontre Wilson, who flashed into the end zone untouched (as expected, Wilson is becoming more and more involved to the tune of five carries for 51 yds and a TD).

Later, on a designed keeper out of a unique formation with four WRs bunched to the right, Guiton ran left, got a couple blocks downfield and found himself running free down the middle of the field for a 44-yard TD. These helped set up some other textbook reads later, including in the second quarter when Guiton ran left again, got the defender to commit and pitched out to RB Jordan Hall at the last second who scampered for 25 yards to just short of the goal line.

And it's not even that he's all scrambles and pitches, either. In the first quarter, Guiton stood inside the pocket despite a free blitzer streaking towards him and delivered a 27-yd TD strike to Philly Brown. While he did reveal some of what he may lack in arm strength on a deep route that got picked off, the defender made an impressive one-handed play on the ball, and for the most part, Guiton stayed calm, composed, and productive through pretty much an entire game of work.

It's worth noting, too, that there were 10 other players out there with him. The offensive Line had been an area of concern against Buffalo, with Meyer wanting a more physical and assertive unit, and this week the effort improved - although still with some noticeable lapses. On one of Miller's only plays, left guard Andrew Norwell got blown back almost into his QB, and throughout the day, SDSU was able to dial up pressure relatively regularly, even though Guiton tended to handle it with ease.

The front wall also struggled on a couple of short yardage situations, getting stoned on a third-and-two that set up Miller's injury on fourth down, and later, during Meyer's likeable moment of the game when they went for another fourth-and-three at the SDSU 35 while up 42-7, the line again got pushed back and Guiton was stopped a yard short. It's still more of a finesse line, capable of getting out to second levels (like LT J. Mewhort did on Guiton's long run) but also no guarantee on those ever-important short yardage pick-ups.

Much of the rushing success on the day came off options around the edges, and even after J. Hall's big day in the opener, Meyer returned to more of a committee look, with Guiton the leading rusher on the day, and five RBs not named Dunn splitting the carries.

The receiving corps again did everything that was asked of it, blocking well on the edges, and the duo of Philly Brown and D. Smith combining for 13 catches, 119 yards, and two touchdowns. The TE involvement that people seem to be wanting more of will have to wait, although Jeff Heuerman did split out in the slot on a couple looks.

The offense did pick up seven flags on the day, mainly thanks to RG Marcus Hall, who personally picked up three false starts and an illegal hands-to-the-face penalty.

Enjoy those wind sprints this week, big fella.

Yayyy, stickers!!!: Most of these thingies will go to Guiton, who now allows the fan base to sleep a little better, even amidst nightmares about Miller's knees. The offense hummed all day without its best player, and we'll have to see just how much they need out of Guiton going forward against tougher opponents.

When Ohio Was on Defense

It's going to be difficult to get a true read on this defense until they play somebody decent, which could be a while (and which SDSU certainly is not). While it's cute how Chris Spielman uses his booth to espouse the Silver Bullets' "SEC speed" and that they're basically the same as Alabama, for now all we know is that they're perfectly capable of overwhelming much less talented opponents. With Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett back, the unit is back to full strength, and the coaches are focused on developing depth at LB and DT.

SDSU QB Adam Dingwell isn't necessarily an interception in human form just waiting to be thrown, but all the same, he was 27-63 with four picks against Eastern Illinois. Against the Buckeyes, he only lasted a handful of series in which he sprayed the ball all over the place without coming close to hitting ANY of his receivers before being pulled for walk-on backup Quinn Kaehler. The defense held SDSU to three yards (yes, three) in the first quarter, and it wasn't until the game was out of hand that the Aztecs moved the ball much of anywhere.

The talk going in was that this primarily nickel defense would involve more 4-3 looks to combat SDSU's more pro-style running attack, and they did for the most part. But with the Aztecs down by so many so early and Adam Muema getting hurt again in the second quarter, they largely abandoned the run game, allowing the D to tee off on pressure (they finished with five TFLs, three sacks, two INTs and two forced fumbles).

Aside from Roby's return (he played quietly well), the D-Line was the story here. It's been 28 years since Ohio went into a season without any returning starters up front. While strongside end Adolphus Washington came out early with a groin pull, "viper" DE (more on this in future weeks) Noah Spence was again a disruptive force. Backup Steve Miller played well, getting through on some speed rushes and notching a sack.

Three-tech Michael Bennett, of whom much is expected, had a game, constantly pushing into the backfield and even whipping out a nifty spin move to the tune of three tackles, 1.5 TFLs, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Further down the depth chart, mammoth DT Chris Carter (who once tipped scales at 400 lbs. but is down to a respectable 340) got in and played well on his few snaps. This unit is going to need this middle depth come conference time, and SDSU was a perfect chance to get the younger guys some game experience.

The linebackers flowed well on the day with Curtis Grant again leading the unit with six tackles and Ryan Shazier impressively blowing up a screen, lifting the RB into the air and slamming him to the ground. SDSU only managed 64 yards rushing on 27 attempts, so for now this unit is handling its business.

In the secondary, getting Roby and Barnett back was big in terms of chemistry and confidence, and it showed with Barnett leading the team in tackles with seven. Starting opposite Roby, Doran Grant is going to be the side-of-the-field of choice for most offenses, and so far he's handling his own. When Grant got all up in Dingwell's face on a first quarter blitz, the ball floated into triple-coverage and Grant made a nice leaping pick.

At the end of the first half, SDSU threatened to get on the board with three plays on the goal line, but D. Grant broke up a slant route in the end zone as time expired. There's depth here, and while they did give up 216 yards through the air, it's still going to be the strength of the defense going forward.

Yay, stickers!!!: Bennett's showing was huge as he can fill one of the D's biggest holes at DT. In the end, a good day all around against a completely hapless opponent.

Schematics and Special Teams

A relatively straightforward day here without much opportunity. With no field attempts and only two returnable punts or kickoffs, it was quiet. Drew Basil remains in a glass case that Urban will only break open unless all other offensive outcomes have been exhausted. The story on the day was Urban rolling out punter C. Johnston just to give future opponents something to stress about.

What Does It All MEAN?

As our sample size grows, we begin to see the forest for the buckeye leaves: patterns emerge, true strengths and weaknesses become more obvious. Sort of. The Buckeyes looked good in all phases and for four quarters, all this without their QB1. It's difficult to tell just how much of this was them and how much of this was SDSU being atrocious at football. Buckeye opponents so far are winless (as that pesky Buffalo team got dismantled by No. 23-ranked Baylor 70-13), so the wait continues on passing real judgment until there's some talent on the opposing sideline.

The young depth on this squad is getting a lot of playing time, with DL and LB depth looking okay in the early going. But while Guiton probably is the best backup in the country, the Buckeyes are going to need Braxton Miller to play an entire game at some point. It's invaluable to have a competent and playmaking game manager on deck, but when the going gets rougher, this team is going to need its marquis QB upright and polished in order to preserve their win streak.

Next week, Urban and the Nuts head cross-country to play once-formidable Cal, which isn't exactly formidable any longer. Still, they did give Northwestern a scare in their opener, and crazy things can happen on the road, especially if Miller is limited or hurt again. Any which way, we should get a firmer grasp on how this team is developing, whether concerns about LB and DT depth are valid or just nitpicky, and whether it's ever going to be a rough ride on the way to Ann Arbor or just a cakewalk.

The Road to an SEC Evisceration

Aug. 31 Ohio 40 - Buffalo 20
Sept. 7 Ohio 42 -- San Diego St. 7
Sept. 14 @ Cal
Sept. 21 Florida A&M
Sept. 28 Wisconsin
Oct. 5 @ Northwestern
Oct. 19 Iowa
Oct. 26 Penn St.
Nov. 2 @ Purdue
Nov. 16 @ Illinois
Nov. 23 Indiana
Nov. 30 @ Michigan


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