Ohio State Schedule Analysis: Games 6-12

Last time around, I analyzed the first six games of the Ohio State schedule and came to the conclusion that barring any unforeseen setbacks, the Buckeyes should emerge unscathed as regards the loss column. Shifting focus to the final half of the regular season and there can be no doubt that if OSU wants to be in line to defend their national title, they’ll have to knock off a handful of hungry, challenging foes to close out the year.

It’s hard not to get the opposition’s A-game week in and week out when you’re the defending national champion and the target on your back is that much more pronounced. It’s what gives head coach Urban Meyer’s job an added dimension of difficulty in 2015 in terms of keeping the team focused and motivated on a weekly basis.

Having said that, which teams are expected to give that added challenge to the Scarlet and Gray down the stretch in an attempt to spoil their bid to appear in the College Football Playoff for the second straight year?

Be sure to check out my breakdown of the first six games by clicking here.

Ohio State Schedule Analysis: Games 6-12

Penn State: October 17th, 8 PM ET, ABC, ESPN or ESPN2

Last year’s contest against Penn State in Happy Valley in front of nearly 108,000 was the biggest scare of the season for the Buckeyes. They ultimately prevailed 31-24 in double overtime to hold off an upset-minded Nittany Lion team led by James Franklin who was undoubtedly in search of a program-defining victory in his first year as head coach. The Bucks’ fledgling CFP hopes at the time would have certainly been extinguished with a loss.

Despite the near upset, 2014 was a forgettable year for the Nittany Lions. They only won twice in-conference by a combined nine points to Rutgers and Indiana. The offensive line continually struggled to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, leading to a significant regression on his part from a year earlier when he had one of the best freshman campaigns in the country, throwing for the third most yards in the Big Ten.

This season, virtually the entire offensive line returns and both the unit as a whole and Hackenberg are itching to put last year’s lackluster effort behind them. The now junior signal caller is hoping a prolific 2015 will reignite his NFL Draft stock which took a significant hit as a result of what happened in 2014.

The talented interior defensive line tandem of Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel will be hoping to wreak havoc in the backfield. Zettel himself finished tied for third in the conference last year with eight sacks. It was him who in many ways ignited the second half comeback against the Buckeyes by intercepting quarterback J.T. Barrett on the first possession of the third quarter when OSU led 17-0 and took it back for a pick six.

This is another one of those games where the battle in the trenches will dictate which team is able to move the ball more effectively. I still give the edge to the Buckeyes, particularly on defense. Yes, the PSU offensive front should be improved, but will it be enough to slow down players such as defensive end Joey Bosa and linebacker Josh Perry, both of whom are expected to pick up where they left off in 2014?

That as well as a loud Horseshoe in prime time should definitely give the edge to the Scarlet and Gray.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 34, Penn State 20

at Rutgers: October 24th, 8 PM ET, TV TBA

Much like fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland, last year marked the first-ever meeting between Rutgers and Ohio State. Suffice it to say it didn’t go so well for the Big Ten newbies, who were ran out of Ohio Stadium in dominating 56-17 fashion.

The outlook doesn’t look much better in 2015. The Scarlet Knights return only 10 starters on both sides of the ball and will be breaking in a new quarterback after Gary Nova graduated. It appears sophomore Chris Laviano is the frontrunner but might have some competition in Hayden Rettig who transferred from LSU. Whoever wins the starting job will need to get accustomed to the position quickly in the six games leading up to this one.

Defensively, the front seven is the biggest strength, with the two leading tacklers on the team returning in outside linebackers Steve Longa and Quentin Gause. Nose tackle Darius Hamilton and defensive end Kemoko Turay are also back and combined for 13.5 sacks last year.

Head coach Kyle Flood has kept this program respectable after Greg Schiano took it to unprecedented heights before him. That said, the graduation losses are going to hit the team hard when they face teams with the talent levels Ohio State possesses.

We could be in for a repeat of last year’s shellacking.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 49, Rutgers 14

Minnesota: November 7th, 7/8 PM ET, ABC, ESPN or ESPN2

This is the first of two divisional crossover games for the Buckeyes in a row. Last year, amid frigid and snowy conditions at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Barrett played with ice cold poise in continuing OSU’s run towards repairing its image in the eyes of the CFP selection committee. He passed for 200 yards and three touchdowns while adding 189 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown as the Bucks prevailed 31-24.

The Golden Gophers come to the Horseshoe for the first time since 2009. Head coach Jerry Kill enters his fifth year at Minnesota having won Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2014. I know a lot of Buckeye fans weren’t entirely enamored with that decision but I’m sure we all can agree that Kill does more with less than perhaps any other coach in the conference and maybe the nation.

He has his work cut out for him to repeat that feat. The Gophers return just five starters on offense including quarterback Mitch Leidner. They need to find a way to replace running back David Cobb, who was one of a veritable treasure trove of Big Ten running backs that have since been drafted by NFL teams. Leidner also loses his favorite target from last season in tight end Maxx Williams.

The Gophers secondary could be the strongest unit on the team. Senior Breian Boddy-Calhoun had five interceptions in 2014 which was tied for second best among players in the conference. He should attract a great deal of interest from teams at the next level, especially if he can force mistakes out of the Buckeye pass game in Columbus.

This is a game where I envision Minnesota limiting the Buckeyes offensively but really struggling to create anything on that side of the ball themselves.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 30, Minnesota 7

at Illinois: November 14th,  Time & TV TBA

Ohio State has won 15 of the last 20 meetings against the Fighting Illini who play for the Illibuck trophy which dates back to 1927. The funny thing about Illinois’ five wins since 1992 is that all of them have occurred in Columbus. The last time the Buckeyes lost in Champaign was a 10-7 defeat on October 12th, 1991.

Things got ugly really quick last year. The Buckeyes took a 31-0 lead into halftime and then rested Barrett for the rest of the game, enabling Cardale Jones to play the entirety of the second half en route to a 55-14 win. It was the only noticeable action he would see until his heroics in the Big Ten Championship and CFP.

Illini head coach Tim Beckman was firmly on the hot seat late last season but somehow got the team bowl eligible by winning their final two games. Considering quarterback Wes Lunt as well as nearly all his returning skill position players return, anything less than a bowl appearance might not be good for Beckman’s job security beyond this season.

Despite the fact Illinois haven’t won at home against OSU in 24 years, the two teams have played some close games there in recent years. Apart from the Bucks 60-35 win in 2013, the average margin of victory in this series at Memorial Stadium since 2000 is less than 10 points.

Given what looms the following week, this could be a classic trap game for Ohio State. I’d be wary of betting on them covering the likely substantial spread, but it’s hard to see anything other than 10-0 at this point in the season.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 41, Illinois 23

Michigan State: November 21st, Time & TV TBA

The Buckeyes and Spartans are currently ranked first and fifth respectively in the preseason AP poll. If both run the table leading into this game, there’s the very real possibility this could be a one versus two match-up when the two teams face off in Columbus.

The past two games between these two teams have had both conference and national championship implications.

In 2013, OSU was undefeated heading into the Big Ten Championship game and needed just one win to likely be included in the final BCS title game. MSU had other plans and pulled off a 34-24 upset and followed that up with a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.

One year later, the two renewed pleasantries in East Lansing. Both still had fledgling CFP hopes at the time but knew one more loss would burst the bubble so to speak. Behind a masterful all-around performance from Barrett where he threw for 300 yards, rushed for 108 and added five total touchdowns (three passing, two rushing), the Bucks came out triumphant 49-37, kept their title hopes alive while Barrett vaulted himself into the Heisman conversation.

Quarterback Connor Cook returns for his senior season after leading the Big Ten with 247.2 passing yards per game. He also finished second behind Barrett in touchdown passes, yards per pass and quarterback rating. Four of five starting offensive lineman are back from 2014 as well. The only question mark on offense is figuring out a way to replicate the production from running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett, who combined for 2,763 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Defensive end Shilique Calhoun returns despite drawing legitimate NFL interest at the tail end of his junior year. He’ll look to improve upon his eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last season.

When you consider all this returning firepower for both teams, we could literally be looking at a possible “game of the century” at the Horseshoe if these two are still undefeated. Both coaches, Meyer as well as MSU head man Mark Dantonio, have both these programs at an elite level not just within the Big Ten but nationally.

Buckle your seat belts for this likely “instant classic.”

Score Prediction: Ohio State 42, Michigan State 38

at Michigan: November 28th, Time & TV TBA

Ohio State-Michigan has been a rivalry only in name for over a decade now, as the Wolverines have won just three in the series since 2000. Both Meyer and Jim Tressel have realized a great deal of success over the Maize and Blue and is one of the reasons that program has gone through four coaches since 2007.

Meyer and the Buckeyes continued the domination of Michigan in 2014 with a 42-28 win but lost Barrett for the remainder of the season when he broke his ankle in the third quarter. We all know what happened afterwards.

Jim Harbaugh arrives in Ann Arbor amid great fanfare as regards his ability to turn things around. He’s as Michigan as “Michigan Man” can get, having played quarterback for the Wolverines in the 1980s and winning Big Ten Player of the Year in 1986. His success both at Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers have UM fans excited about a potential revival of the program under Harbaugh, both overall and within the framework of the rivalry with the Buckeyes.

One of the first things he needs to do is figure out his quarterback situation. As of this posting the team has yet to name a starter though it appears junior Shane Morris and Iowa grad transfer Jake Rudock are the frontrunners. Of course, by the time the Buckeyes arrive at Michigan Stadium for this one it’s hoped whoever wins the job will be quite established.

Does the hiring of Harbaugh hint at a coming renewal of the ten-year war between two of the most heated rivals in college football? Is Meyer vs. Harbaugh the new Woody vs. Bo? Both coaches are currently 51 years old and believe it or not, were born in the same hospital in Toledo, OH a mere six months apart.

The challenge facing Ohio State heading into this game might be coming into it at 100 percent after what is anticipated to be a knockdown, drag-out fight the previous week against Michigan’s other big rival. The motivation level for the Wolverines will certainly be elevated considering the excitement around the program and the fact that…well, it’s Ohio State.

Ann Arbor will be a Maize and Blue cauldron, but I think when all’s set and done it ends up 1-0 Meyer after round one of what should be an intriguing coaching feud for hopefully the foreseeable future.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 34, Michigan 23

This is obviously an optimistic assessment of the Buckeyes chances considering I have them going undefeated heading into the college football postseason. However, I’m not the only one. The schedule is certainly favorable. Of their five road games, only one (Rutgers) comes against a team that had an above .500 record during the 2014 regular season.

Time will tell if the Scarlet and Gray can live up to such lofty expectations and put themselves in position to repeat as national champs. The general consensus, though, is that the pieces are in place (talent level and schedule among them) for Meyer and company to have another fantastic year.

Be sure to check out my analysis for the first half of the schedule by clicking here.

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