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Cardale Jones is Ohio State's best anti-Virginia Tech weapon

The country's best team has a major road challenge to start the season (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), but they have a QB built to beat the Hokies.

Ohio State had a lot of handy reasons for its home defeat against Virginia Tech in 2014, the only stain on its championship season. Backup quarterback J.T. Barrett was playing only his second game, with his first contest having come against Navy, hardly adequate prep for Bud Foster's Hokie defense. And he was behind a still-young offensive line.

If the Hokies again upset the loaded Buckeyes, this time at Virginia Tech on Labor Day (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), would Ohio State have new circumstances to point to? OSU has suspended pass rush freak Joey Bosa and a handful of offensive weapons for the game, meaning VT won't get the full-strength Buckeyes. They'll also be dealing with another QB drama, as Cardale Jones vs. Barrett could see its resolution in Blacksburg.

This Virginia Tech team brings real and unique challenges, including potentially the country's best defense, so OSU fans should keep those situations in mind, just in case. The quarterback situation is critical, but first ...

Offensive challenges from the Hokies. Yes, the Hokies.

With two solid tight ends, a versatile fullback, a few experienced linemen, and seven of eight overall leading receivers back, the Hokies have the chance to build a decent passing game. Especially with a QB who made a few plays in Columbus last year.

Conversely, the Buckeyes will be without one of the best pass rushers in the nation -- Bosa had 1.5 sacks against VT -- and have to replace starting boundary cornerback Doran Grant, who had a huge role in Chris Ash's cover 4 defense.

The Hokies killed the Buckeyes on third down a year ago. Converting 53 percent would've ranked No. 2 in the country across a full season. That's thanks in part to formations that featured fullback Sam Rogers at running back and matchup nightmares Bucky Hodges (6'7, 242) and Ryan Malleck (6'5, 252) against linebackers.

The Hokies can attack the seams with the tight ends and suck in the safeties, use Rogers to pick up the still-deadly pass rush and have the WRs run adjustable vertical stem routes in isolation against young corners.

Rogers' abilities as a receiver make this useful for ball-control passing. VT could find horizontal space against the Buckeyes' big LB corps, which has to cover the middle while safeties sit in a two-deep shell.

Hokie snag

The Hokies could barely run against Ohio State, but with four reasonably experienced linemen and a feature back in J.C. Coleman (468 yards in the last four games of 2014), they may have a better chance of finding balance.

The goal is simple, but none of it is easy. The Buckeyes have to replace tackle Michael Bennett and middle linebacker Curtis Grant but have abundant young talent there and experience elsewhere. There's also the problem of the veteran safety tandem, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell.

Sustaining drives will be difficult and will require quarterback Michael Brewer to make a leap in his second VT year. His 18-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio from 2014 won't cut it, and he'll likely have to average better than 5.5 yards per pass against OSU this time.

However, all of that only matters if the Hokies can again limit Ohio State's trips to the end zone.

Cardale Jones, the counter to Virginia Tech's counters

Virginia Tech's defense went all in with an ultra-aggressive plan last year, and it paid off.

Foster's defense spent the entire game, save for obvious passing downs, in its 46 front. Early, the Hokies also parked their free safety within five yards of the line, to ensure eight defenders in the box at all times.

VT 46 angry

Urban Meyer tried QB runs and other concepts to find numbers advantages, but VT's edge players kept the ball inside. Interior Buckeye linemen were always covered up by defenders, which allowed Tech's rover, middle linebacker and free safety to flow to the ball.

What's more, this often became an eight-man blitz if the tight end and running back stayed home to block. The Hokies counted on their excellent coverage group of Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller, and Chuck Clark to keep receivers under wraps.

The only way the Buckeyes found to do real damage was with vertical routes in the seam against the nickel. Here's then-senior burner Devin Smith:

With a lead, the Hokies dropped the free safety deep. Even then, the Buckeyes struggled to run.

Virginia Tech returns both corners and moves Clark to free safety, rather than nickel. If the Buckeyes are going to pass, to prevent the Hokies from playing their 46 again, they'll need to find a WR to run deep routes on new nickel Greg Stroman. And they'll need to do a better job of getting the ball to that receiver.

Of course, they'll be missing Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith in this game, and it'd be a lot to ask Braxton Miller to feature prominently in his first game at receiver. Meyer may need to be creative with his remaining load of skill talent, but there's an obvious way to improve the prospects.

Cardale Jones gives the Buckeyes the best chance to win. Whether or not that's true for the whole season, as Barrett might still be the better quarterback, it'll likely be true against Virginia Tech's defense, which dares you to throw.

The Buckeye offense reached another level when Jones took over at QB. With him, OSU averaged more yards per play against three S&P+ top-15 defenses (7.74) than in games against weak opponents like Kent State, Indiana, and Illinois.

While Barrett offers a better combination of efficiency and speed, Jones' superior arm proved a more explosive complement to an Ezekiel Elliot attack. It didn't even need to involve the QB's legs to run over opponents.

With a dual-threat QB at the helm, the Buckeyes can threaten multiple points along the line of scrimmage. With a big-armed passer, they can threaten to take the top off like they did against Alabama, which lures more defenders from the point of attack than a second ballcarrier can. And Jones can run, anyway.

Rather than trying to out-scheme a veteran eight-man box, Meyer's best bet is to start Jones and force the Hokies to play at least one deep defender or risk getting ripped to pieces with slant and sluggo routes.

Whatever Meyer's plan is, the Hokies' aggressive defense will force answers to questions of, say, whether Braxton Miller is ready to beat good coverage and which Buckeye QB brings a higher upside.

If Ohio State struggles with these questions, another march to the Playoff could be in doubt by Tuesday morning. Or the Buckeyes could even have to play from behind all season, again.


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