I know about a lot of things. One thing I don’t know enough about is the Ohio State Buckeye offense. So, to help prepare us for the Peach Bowl I called a professional.
Matt Tamanini is the managing editor of SB Nation’s estimable Ohio State site, Land Grant Holy Land. Mike is a terrific writer*, a fantastic football mind**, and perhaps the only Ohio State fan who can recite the Iliad in Estonian***. Matt graciously agreed to answer a handful of questions about what we can expect from Heisman finalist CJ Stroud, who’s really in charge of (and responsible for) the Buckeye attack, how Ohio State might deal with Jalen Carter, and a host of other details to know when the Ohio State offense is on the field. Enjoy.
MD: Ohio State certainly has its share of playmakers on offense, but will be missing a couple of them for the Peach Bowl. Both Jaxon Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson had missed time during the 2022 season, but will having them out of this game make a substantial difference in the outcome?
Matt: The Buckeyes have essentially played without Smith-Njigba all season, so compared to the rest of the 2022-23 campaign, that shouldn’t really be too different for them. Of course, when healthy, he is one of the best playmakers in the country, so anytime you’re missing him, it hurts your offense, but OSU has become accustomed to not having him on the field this season, so there’s not going to be any real adjustments necessary on Saturday.
Henderson, on the other hand, is a weird situation. He came in as a five-star running back and has shown flashes of greatness during his two years in Columbus, but either due to indecision or injury, Miyan Williams emerged during the first half of the campaign as perhaps an even more legitimate No. 1 back than Henderson. The issue is that neither was really healthy for most of the back half of the season. Henderson had surgery on his foot last month, but Williams has been back practicing at what has reportedly been close to 100%.
However, after arriving with the team in Atlanta on Sunday, he has been absent from media sessions and practices on Tuesday and Wednesday because he is “under the weather.” There does not seem to be any belief that whatever is keeping him away from team activities will lead to him being unavailable for the game, but because of his more physical, north-south style of running, I would contend that missing would have a bigger impact than missing Henderson.
Williams has been much more forceful hitting holes this season, and I would imagine against Georgia’s defensive front than dancing in the backfield and being unsure of your running lane is probably a recipe for disaster.
MD: Marvin Harrison, Jr. has enjoyed a breakout sophomore season, snagging 72 passes for 1157 yards and an eye-popping 12 receiving touchdowns. What makes him so dangerous, and how can the Bulldogs slow him down?
Matt: It’s likely no surprise to anyone that Harrison came into college as physically and mentally prepared to be a big-time wide receiver as possible, but he has grown into even more of a dominant force this fall. Obviously, at 6-foot-4, he is a difficult player to defend, but when you add in his athleticism, body control, and hands, he is able to turn 50-50 balls into catches that seem like givens.
So far this season, the only way that I’ve seen to slow him down is to put him in bracket coverage and hope that one of the two defenders is able to out-jump him to get the ball. However, probably the best way to stop Harrison from taking over a game actually has nothing to do with him at all. Ohio State has only given up eight sacks on the season and quarterback C.J. Stroud has proven to be pretty good at either rolling the pocket or avoiding pressure. However – like it is with most quarterbacks – his ability to complete passes is dramatically hindered when having to contend with a legitimate pass rush. Stroud had a nasty, mid-season habit of throwing off of his back foot when pressure was in his face, and while he has made strides to correct that, no one the Buckeyes have faced this season has anything like the talent Georgia will have on its defensive front.
So, while this is practically a cliche, if the Dawgs want to limit Marv’s impact on the game, pressure Stroud.
MD: The Buckeyes have the top-scoring offense in the Big Ten and the second-ranked attack in the nation. So clearly a lot of things have worked well for Kevin Wilson’s offense in 2022. But what hasn’t worked well?
Matt: First off, let me pull the curtain back a little bit for you, since you obviously don’t follow the inner workings of the Ohio State program. This is Kevin Wilson’s offense in name only… and even that might be pushing it. While the new Tulsa head coach certainly is involved in schemes and game plans, this is still every bit of Ryan Day’s offense. That has pros and cons to it, but as much as I think Wilson has done for the program, everything that happens on that side of the ball starts and stops with the head coach.
Now, statistically, they’ve done just about everything well, playing against a respectable, but not incredible strength of schedule. However, much of that success has been on the strength of the Buckeyes’ athletic advantages, rather than anything from a design or play-calling standpoint. So, instead of the offense maximizing the talent at its disposal, it has been relying on it.
This has led to a far-too-heavy reliance on deep bombs as opposed to anything to highlight the receiving corps’ playmaking ability over the middle, and they’ve never exactly figured out how to get the most out of the running game. Part of that is because of all of the injuries suffered at that position (their preseason No. 4 RB and a converted linebacker have been the primary ball carriers in the last two games), and part of it has been an obsession in proving that they are “tough.”
Following the losses to Oregon and Michigan in the 2021 season, that was the biggest knock on Day’s offense, that they were a “finesse” team and couldn’t win at the line of scrimmage. So, the entire program set out to prove that narrative wrong in 2022. And, while you could argue that they did for most of the season, it limited their opportunity to actually fully take advantage of the talents that they have on the roster, forcing them to fit square pegs in round holes all year.
So, while on paper it appears that the OSU offense was hitting on all cylinders for most of the fall, I would probably put it at 66% of cylinders – maybe 75% at most. And while that gave me a little bit of comfort throughout the season, as I was able to talk myself into believing that they would turn some creativity on for The Game, that didn’t happen, so it has now become one of the biggest points of concern heading into the Peach Bowl.
MD: Get the picture: Ohio State is down by four points with the ball on the Bulldog 8 yard line and time for only one more play. Who’s getting the ball, and how?
Matt: As I alluded to above, I have been very critical of Ryan Day and his playcalling this season, as I think he often tries too hard to be cute and out-think the room, rather than just doing the thing that has the highest likelihood to succeed. So, in this situation, Ohio State should get the ball to its best player. Unless UGA has three guys on Marvin Harrison Jr., I would just have Stroud put the ball in the air and trust that your best pass-catcher can go up and get it.
However, given Day’s track record this season, he’d probably call a bubble screen and tight end Cade Stover would miss a block which would result in a five-yard loss and the end of the game.
MD: Fill in the blank: the thing that most worries me about the Georgia defense is _____.
Matt: I mean, is it too obvious to say Jalen Carter? As I mentioned earlier, getting pressure on Stroud has been his Achilles Heel all season, and facing Michigan in 2021 – when the Wolverines’ defense was led by Aiden Hutchinson and David Ajabo – proved how destructive elite defensive lineman can be in subduing the OSU offense.
Now, fortunately for the Buckeyes, Carter – as otherworldly as he is – is an interior lineman, and while UGA could move him around to get him favorable matchups, it will still be far easier to double (or triple) team than an edge rusher is. But, if he is able to eat up multiple offensive lineman, that leaves lanes open for Georgia defenders coming from the second level to put pressure on Stroud.
I don’t know if Ohio State’s defense can stop Georgia’s offense, but I know that it doesn’t really matter if the Buckeyes can’t put up a substantial amount of points against the Bulldog defense, and the only way to do that is to keep Stroud clean and give him time to throw. No one has really been able to put up big numbers against UGA all season (and I’m not counting the second half of the SEC Championship Game which was essentially just 30 minutes of garbage time when LSU put up stats despite the game already being in hand), and if OSU wants to break that trend, they have to give their quarterback time to cook.
MD: There are 80 Chick-Fil-A restaurants in the state of Ohio and 9 in the greater Columbus area. Have you visited any of them, and if so what is your go-to order? Were you aware that they will add bacon to anything you order, including a vanilla dream cone ice cream?
Matt: Full disclosure, I have not lived in Columbus since 2004, so I cannot say that I have visited any of the 80 Ohio Chick-Fil-A locations. However, I have lived in Florida (where I am now) or Georgia since 2007, so I have had my fair share of regular (and spicy) chicken sandwiches and cookies and creme shakes. I am getting old though, so I gave up fried food and sugar a couple of years ago, so it’s been a while since I have partaken in either. But I will spread the good news about the bacon to all of my family and friends. Thanks for the heads up.
Thanks to Matt for gamely answering our questions. We’ll be back tomorrow with the second part of our discussion, in which Mike tells us what to look for when the Scarlet and Gray defense takes the field. Until later…
* Accurate statement.
** Demonstrably true.
*** I can’t disprove this, we’re just going to go with it.