After a huge storm that delayed the ending of Pitt-Oklahoma State by two hours and pushed back the Ohio State-Oklahoma kickoff by nearly as long, OU began in "hot knife meets butter" mode in front of a packed crowd.
Baker Mayfield hit two 17-yard passes, then scrambled up the middle for 11. Samaje Perine rumbled for 10 yards, giving a Buckeye a ride for part of the carry. This was a statement of intent from Bob Stoops' Sooners.
But then, Ohio State’s Gareon Conley broke up a nice Mayfield pass. And Sam Hubbard and half the Ohio State front pressured Mayfield into an errant third-down throw. And then OU's Austin Seibert hit the upright on a 27-yard field goal.
The sound -- the thud of the upright, the "OHHHHH" vacuum from the OU crowd, and the roar from the Ohio State section -- signified the end for the Sooners. The game was not even four minutes old, but Ohio State had just created the one break it needed.
From there, the Buckeyes did what they have done for most of Urban Meyer's tenure. They flipped the field with a huge punt, forced a three-and-out, took over at the OU 45, and scored in four plays. Jerome Baker picked off Mayfield and took the ball 68 yards for a score. OU's Joe Mixon returned a kickoff for a touchdown (one that counted on the scoreboard, at least), but OSU responded with a six-minute, nine-play, 83-yard scoring drive.
Ohio State scored on six of its first eight possessions and picked Mayfield off twice in the process. Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel rushed for 221 yards while Perine averaged 3.5 yards per carry. J.T. Barrett was efficient with his arm and converted third downs with his legs. Noah Brown caught four touchdown passes. For the third, he pinned the ball against cornerback Michiah Quick and got 2 feet in bounds, just to show off.
Score after 15 minutes and 40 seconds: Ohio State 21, Oklahoma 7, and the Sooners would never close within one score and fall, 45-24.
After the game, Meyer told media, "I haven't seen it yet. From what I heard, it's one of the great catches."
He’s probably seen it a few times since then.
There’s something about a relaxed Urban Meyer team.
Oklahoma is probably going to be fine this year. The Sooners remain a Big 12 favorite and will have a good chance of finishing with nine or 10 wins, another conference title, and a major bowl. Ohio State was simply a much, much better team on Saturday night.
Relatively speaking, expectations were low for the Buckeyes this year. They began sixth in the AP poll, their lowest preseason standing since 2012. That’s the ultimate in First World problems, but there were plenty of reasons to wonder about this squad.
Meyer’s recruiting is second to basically only Nick Saban’s, but even with young four-stars everywhere, inexperience still matters for most teams. Surely there would be some setbacks, right?
Technically, setbacks are still possible. It’s only been three weeks, and S&P+ projections say there are still four games on the schedule for which Ohio State has between a 50-65 percent chance of winning. But this was the game the Buckeyes were supposed to be too inexperienced to win, the hurdle they weren’t supposed to clear. Instead, they delivered one hell of a message.
Let’s nitpick. It’s easy to get distracted by a team’s early dominance, but if chinks are going to appear in the Buckeye armor, what’s the most likely cause?
So much of football is the balance between efficiency and explosiveness. The best offenses and defenses are good in both categories, but most sacrifice one for the other to some degree. For Ohio State, it depends on down and distance.
You can find standard down and passing down splits here. Thus far, Ohio State has been all-efficiency on standard downs (first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer) and all-explosiveness on passing downs.
- Standard downs: first in success rate, 85th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays)
- Passing downs: 77th in success rate, third in IsoPPP.
When you’re as ruthlessly efficient, and you never fall behind schedule, you have very little to worry about. Opposing defenses are constantly on their heels, and all run and pass options are on the table.
If you exclude garbage time, on standard downs, Barrett is 26-of-39 passing for 301 yards with no sacks and one interception. He finds easy passes to make on first down, and Ohio State is tremendous at both staying in third-and-manageable and creating happy matchups.
Still, that’s also an average of only 11.6 yards per completion. He’s averaging 16 per completion on passing downs, but (again, excluding garbage time) he’s completed only 50 percent of his passes.
Ohio State’s success rate on standard downs is an astronomical 65 percent. But what happens if a defense is able to figure out how to slow the Buckeyes down on first down? It’s still early, obviously, but after three weeks, November 26 opponent Michigan ranks fourth in the country, having allowed only a 26 percent success rate on standard downs. Oct. 15 opponent Wisconsin is 13th at 37 percent. Michigan State is just 40th at the moment, but the Spartans held the Buckeyes to 35 percent last year.
If you’re falling behind schedule more frequently, and you’re relying on big plays to carry you in those situations, you’ll end up with quite a few three-and-outs to go with only a couple of bombs. This might only bite Ohio State once or twice this year, but when you’re a national title contender, twice might be too many.
An iffy pass rush
Saturday might have been a good sign for the Buckeye pass rush — Ohio State pressured Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield enough to bait him into some bad habits. In 35 pass attempts, Mayfield was sacked three times, and his two picks were both the results of great plays up front: The first was deflected at the line, and the second was a throw on the run when Mayfield had to flee the pocket.
Still, that was only one game, and through three, Ohio State ranks 85th in standard-downs sack rate (2.9 percent) and 76th on passing downs (6.4 percent). So far, the secondary hasn’t needed much help since Buckeye opponents have completed only 49 percent of their passes with nine picks and a 79.6 passer rating. But that could change.
Granted, not many future opponents are known for lighting the world aflame with the forward pass. But Michigan State's Tyler O'Connor is currently sixth in the country with a 183.4 passer rating, Indiana's Richard Lagow is 15th (168.0), and Michigan's Wilton Speight is 18th (166.3). If the pass rush doesn't continue to develop, an opponent could eventually find a passing groove.
Randomness and youth
The thing about inexperience is that it isn’t particularly consistent in the way it bites you. Upside dominates until a random glitch. When you recruit as well as Meyer, you probably can’t expect many glitches.
Still, on Ohio State’s depth chart last week, 10 of 14 skill guys were either freshmen or sophomores, as were seven of 11 offensive linemen, seven of 10 defensive linemen, and five of eight defensive backs. There were eight true freshmen listed in the trenches alone.
Clearly it didn’t backfire in Norman. With upperclassmen like Barrett, Samuel, center Pat Elflein, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes still have experience to lean on. But again, it only takes a blip or two to wreck title goals. At some point, Ohio State is probably going to suffer a few glitches. If they happen against Rutgers or Northwestern, the Buckeyes are probably fine. But trips to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State loom, as does a season-ending home date with Michigan. The tests are only beginning; how frequently can this young squad maintain this level?
About Noah Brown on Saturday night, Meyer said, "He's a grinder. We love grinders and guys who work so hard."
Meyer and Saban have won seven of the last 10 national titles because no one else has been as successful at turning blue-chippers into blue-collar players. And in 2016, despite youth for both — Ohio State’s is well-documented, and Alabama is all-in with a true freshman quarterback — Meyer and Saban teams have looked like the two best teams in the country.
So much for a down year in Columbus.