COLUMBUS, Ohio - After the first two weeks of the season, Ohio State seemed a little too over hyped during the offseason. Some of the key areas the coaching staff had talked about over the spring, such as the play of the secondary and J.T. Barrett's accuracy, looked well off the mark.
Now, just two weeks removed from a tough loss to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes are on the rise.
Sure, two games against relatively low quality opponents does not give Ohio State much pull in playoff talks. But, Urban Meyer's word that his team was slowly improving and working out the kinks look to be coming full circle, and the Buckeyes have regained some lost momentum entering league play.
Meyer mentioned some of the areas he saw improvement on Monday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex, as well as some other key notes for the week leading up to Big Ten play.
RED ZONE TURNING INTO THE GREEN ZONE
Ohio State did a poor job of utilizing big targets in red zone passing opportunities last year, and running schemes that allowed receivers to create the separation needed to set up touchdown passes within the 20-yard line.
Late in the Army West Point game, and in the second quarter against UNLV, the Buckeyes found the success they had been lacking that area. Whether it was the strike from Barrett to Terry McLaurin in the back of the end zone against the Black Knights, or the jump-ball toss to Binjimen Victor against the Rebels, there was little to complain about with Ohio State's passing attack close to the end zone.
Meyer liked what he saw, but still extended the challenge of getting better to his team.
"You can see we're working on it very hard. Obviously the game changes a lot down there and we haven't been good the last couple of years," Meyer said Monday. "So we're working our tails off at that. And having big guys like Austin Mack and Bin Victor, because a lot of those are two-balls, two-balls meaning there's a little bit of arc on it because no one moves, everyone is within that confined area. So how comfortable am I? Better than we have but not where we need to be."
So far, Ohio State has more passing touchdowns in the red zone than rushing ones. The Buckeyes have tossed the ball across the goal line seven times, while running it in six.
The biggest issue Meyer has, most likely, is the fact Ohio State has also had to settle for field goals on seven occasions, and failed to score four times on 24 total trips to inside the opponents' 20.
If Ohio State can continue to depend on players like Mack and Victor in the red zone, or even McLaurin and Parris Campbell, those numbers will improve.
CURTIS SAMUEL 2.0
Before getting too far into this part, there should be a disclaimer that Campbell is not the same player Curtis Samuel was for the Buckeyes. While Campbell has slotted into the H-back role well, he is not as dangerous of a ball carrier as the now Carolina Panthers' wide receiver was.
Campbell is averaging 145 all-purpose yards per game, good enough for 23rd in the nation between names like Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquan Barkley of Penn State and multi-talented San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny. Although he won't be putting up many big games in the rushing yards column, Campbell has put himself in the national spotlight with big games returning kicks and a few long touchdown receptions.
Campbell is averaging a ridiculous 45.6 yards per return, which is tops in the nation. Meyer has been praising the play-making ability of Campbell all year, and even went as far as to say Campbell is almost in the same elite company as Samuel in terms of giving him the ball when Ohio State needs a score.
Sometimes trying to keep giving the ball to the guy most feel has the best opportunity to make a big play can limit an offense, but Campbell has been making the big play nearly every time he touches it.
Meyer poked fun at Campbell's almost free-kick return for a touchdown, saying he was close to taking one back, but is still "about seven yards a way."
Campbell is going to be getting a lot more touches before the season is over, and rightfully so after his fast start.
Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has been more than good in his first four career games, but he will now have some competition for snaps. Meyer said Mike Weber is a full go for the Rutgers game, and has been cleared by the team's training staff to go full speed.
Weber's hamstring had been hampering him since summer drills, but he is expected to have little to no limitations from it now. There is some less positive news from the other side of the ball.
Defensive lineman Malik Barrow was taken out of the UNLV game and rode back to the locker room on a cart. Meyer confirmed he tore his ACL, which happened to Barrow in high school on his other leg.
His year is done now, but Ohio State gave Robert Landers, who was in a walking boot before Saturday's game, a probably distinction, along with linebacker Chris Worley. Both players will likely be back on the field against Rutgers.
In some unsurprising news, quarterback Joe Burrow is fully cleared now from his broken hand, even after receiving some snaps against the Rebels.
"Joe Burrow is cleared, but last week I wasn't going to put him in harm's way," Meyer said. "Joe is such a tough guy. He thought he was ready after seven days. It's a broken bone. So that's why he went in later."
OFFENSIVE LINE LEADS TO CONFERENCE GLORY
The player of the game on offense for Ohio State was right tackle Isaiah Prince, which is pretty shocking considering his miscues last season. Meyer has said that Prince is one of the most improved players on the team, and the results have backed that distinction.
"We are an offensive-line driven program. We won ... our first season here we went 12-0 because of Braxton and the offensive line and pretty salty, good defense, not a great defense," Meyer said. "But I think any coach would stand in front of you and say if your offensive line becomes best in the conference you're probably going to win the conference. And last year we were not and we did not. So that means that we should be in the hunt if we continue to grow as an offensive line, and Isaiah is a big part of that."
The Buckeyes do averaging a little over two sacks per game, but the offensive stats and production are there. Prince has done an efficient job at protecting Barrett while opening up running lanes, even if he still has one or two brain neutral plays every game.
Ohio State's starting offensive line allowed one sack against UNLV, even while facing some intimidating interior defensive linemen. Meyer said his offensive line has made huge strides, and the results are hard to argue with.
BLAME THE TECHNIQUE, NOT THE TALENT
Meyer does not like when his team is flagged for physical secondary play, much like any coach. While he did say he would never say any of the flags thrown against the Buckeyes were unwarranted, he wants to see a quick fix.
"Some of those were questionable. But I really don't look at much other than I see a flag, it was PI. It's no different than the one game we had a couple of holdings, I think that was the week before, by the receivers," Meyer said. "Those conversations, when I first got here a lot of those, well, it wasn't holding. Okay. What was it then? Or it wasn't offensive pass interference. So they were pass interferences, they were wrong. We've got to get that fixed and move forward. And it's technique-related. It's not effort-related. It's certainly not talent-related. It's technique-related."
Even after a rough game penalty wise, it seems unlikely cornerback Kendall Sheffield will see reduced playing time. Meyer said pass defense is still one of the primary focuses for his team, and it stands to reason after Saturday's game.