Heading into the second quarter of Ohio State’s week three bout with Western Kentucky, it felt like the Buckeyes’ offense was doomed to be anemic. After a pair of uninspiring multi-score wins over weak competition, many were expecting the Buckeyes to struggle and fail to cover the massive spread. This fear was apparent when the Buckeyes only led 7-3 after a Kyle McCord fumble in the first quarter.
Despite the slower start, Ohio State looked the part of a top team with CFP aspirations. The Buckeyes dominated every facet and left no doubt en route to a statement 53-point victory.
Buckeyes Back on Track With Big Win Over Hilltoppers
Potent Offense Reigned In
In two games this year, Western Kentucky averaged 327 yards through the air and 122 yards on the ground. Last year, they averaged 352.2 and 145.1. With all of the questions surrounding the Ohio State defense and its rebuilt secondary, the Hilltoppers were held to just 204 passing yards and 80 rushing yards.
A key area where Ohio State’s defense needed to improve was on third down. In this game, the Buckeyes held WKU to just three of 16. When the defense needed a stop, they got one. Western Kentucky decided to go for it on fourth down six times in this game and the offense only converted three of those.
The linebackers for the Buckeyes were all over the field. Tommy Eichenberg led the way with 10 tackles and Steele Chambers added nine tackles with a pass breakup, an interception, and a tackle for loss. After just 10 total tackles for Eichenberg through the first two games, this is an encouraging sign for the Buckeye defense. Getting the linebackers involved is a big step in the right direction for this Ohio State defense.
Rebuilt Secondary Looked Sound
The rebuilt secondary stepped up in a massive way as well. Noticeably, corner Denzel Burke continues to develop and turn his career around after a weak 2022. After a strong outing against the Hilltoppers, Burke has been targeted a total of 15 times thus far this year. According to BuckeyeHuddle‘s Tony Gerdeman, those 15 targets have resulted in just two receptions while racking up four pass breakups, an interception, and a forced fumble. In addition, opposite him, Davison Igbinosun also had himself a game with five tackles and recovered a fumble.
Overall, the secondary played quite well to stymie a prolific passing attack. They were sound in their assignments and, for the most part, did not miss many tackles. Burke and company did well to crash downhill and react any time WKU attempted to combat the pass rush with a hurry-up offense.
You Get a Touchdown! You Get a Touchdown! Everybody Gets a Touchdown!
Oprah must have been on-site for this one because everywhere you looked, someone different was scoring a touchdown. In total, if you count the quarterbacks as well, 10 different Buckeyes scored.
Leading the way on offense was TreVeyon Henderson with the first two scores of the day. He is starting to look like his freshman self with the way he can turn the corner and tear upfield, as evident by his 21-yard touchdown. Western Kentucky tried to make Henderson keep stretching and almost had him contained. Instead, he broke contain, turned upfield, and tore up the sideline. He added a seven-yard score on an off-tackle concept. After being held in check against Indiana and Youngstown State this type of performance from the veteran is important heading back into Big Ten play.
McCord was surgical. While he missed a few throws, one of which was on the first third down, he finished with only four incompletions and three touchdowns. The biggest play of the game was the 75-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison, Jr. Harrison Jr. continues to show why he will likely be a top-five pick in next year’s NFL Draft. In addition to his sneaky speed, his route-running ability continues to improve.
In addition, Chip Trayanum had his own 40-yard score off of a perfectly executed inside zone concept. He hit the hole at full speed, which allowed him to break an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage and hit top speed quickly. Trayanum has a legitimate argument to be the starting running back and will likely make an NFL team very happy come 2024.
Touchdowns Just Keep Coming
Two touchdowns came by way of Emeka Egbuka. The Buckeyes lulled the defense to sleep with all of the quick game and Egbuka sold it perfectly. The offense wasn’t alone in the scoring. The defense got into the action in the second half.
To start, that forced fumble by Burke was knocked back into the end zone where there was a massive scramble for the ball. Tyleik Williams was the beneficiary of the chaos and scored his very own “thick six”. The final score on the night came from a big play from a true freshman. Jermaine Matthews jumped the curl and took Austin Reed‘s pass back 58 yards for the score. The freshman showed great instinct and made the offense pay. This was the first interception of his young college career and shows promise for the future.
The final offensive score was also impressive. Devin Brown, despite losing the quarterback battle, was allowed to air it out on his drives. Perhaps without the pressure of the battle, Brown was able to loosen up and play his game. His touchdown was a perfectly placed ball to true freshman Carnell Tate. It was a much better pass than Brown had throughout his battle with McCord. Brown having a good showing here is important for coaches to see that he can be trusted throughout the season if anything were to happen to McCord.
The Offensive Line Was Much-Improved
A common theme among the Buckeye faithful was that the Ohio State offensive line played quite well on Saturday. The PFF grades back this idea up. In 50 snaps together as a unit, Josh Fryar led the way with an 85.2, followed by Donovan Jackson (71.6), Matthew Jones (71.3), Carson Hinzman (66.0), and Josh Simmons (64.7) graded out as the worst.
Even taking the level of competition in mind, it was a great performance for the Buckeyes’ offensive line. In the passing game, they gave McCord plenty of time to work the defense and only allowed one sack. That lone sack, which turned into a strip sack and turnover, was the responsibility of the offensive line. They did their job and gave McCord just under four seconds to get rid of the ball. However, he was looking to force the ball downfield and did not feel the rush. Even then, they gave McCord plenty of time all game.
In the run game, the unit was getting some serious push from the get-go. Leading up to this game, Ohio State averaged under five yards per carry. On a season-high 33 rushing attempts, the offensive line helped to the tune of just over six yards per carry. On a number of carries, Henderson and Trayanum followed their blocks and weren’t touched until they ran five yards.
As a unit, the Buckeyes’s offensive line put together its best effort from this young season. Notre Dame is next up and needless to say that they’ll be a bit more of a challenge.
“I Got My Swagger Back”
Ohio State needed this tune-up game before playing Notre Dame in week four. McCord and the other starters were pulled after a punt in the third quarter. The offense turned in six touchdown drives. Further, the unit spread the ball around. In addition, the offense possessed the ball and wore down the defense. This is something that they must continue against Notre Dame.
The explosivity of the offense is a calling card for Ryan Day. This started when he was an offensive coordinator in 2017. In a game with as much of a matchup nightmare as this was, it was to be expected. Now that Ohio State is traveling to another CFP hopeful, the size and talent disparity is minimized.
Overall, the Buckeyes are feeling much better. There is a confidence in the defense that wasn’t there. McCord is relaxed. He’s not worried about making a crucial mistake on every throw. How Ohio State measures up to the Fighting Irish will dictate whether 2023 is going to be a season to remember or forget.
Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK