Ohio State hits its first bye week this season at a great time, after six of 12 regular-season games.
What if somebody had told you that OSU would be 6-0, tied for third in the AP poll and own both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense at the regular season’s midpoint — all with a new head coach, several different coordinators and position coaches, a new starting quarterback and an almost all new offensive line?
Even the most demanding Buckeyes fan would be delighted.
As we grade the Buckeyes at the midway point we’re going to try to be fair in marking up our report card but there will be a few students who have a bit more work to do after class.
What more can we say about Justin Fields? He was one of the most hyped recruits in the country when his high school career ended about two years ago and he was the highest-rated quarterback ever to join OSU after he transferred from Georgia. Well, Fields has lived up to the hype and then some.
His sheer numbers –69.5 completion percentage, 216.3 passing yards per game (and remember he has taken a seat early a few times with the Buckeyes way ahead), 18 touchdowns to one interception, plus 8 rushing touchdowns — don’t even tell the full story. OSU has seen several strong running quarterbacks and one NFL first-round arm talent in the past several years but nobody in scarlet and gray has combined both like Fields.
Running backs: A
J.K. Dobbins is going to have a hard time earning even first-team all-Big Ten honors with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor around, but Dobbins has to be one of the top five running backs in the nation. He already has 826 rushing yards and 6 TDs, putting him on pace for somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 yards including a bowl.
While Dobbins has looked as good as he has at any point in his college career, Master Teague has quietly developed into a solid No. 2 option. He’s about the same size as Dobbins so it might not be fitting to call him a change-of-pace back, but Teague is averaging 6.3 yards per carry (not far behind Dobbins’ 7.1) and has been gaining big yards in high-leverage situations.
Wide receivers/Tight ends: B
Binjimen Victor’s 60 yard touchdown catch-and-run against Michigan State aside, OSU’s receivers have not come up with a lot of spectacular plays. Perhaps they have not needed to because they have been very reliable, they bring obvious athleticism and they block for each other. This is a deep and talented unit but perhaps just a jut more sizzle is in order for the second half of the season.
The tight ends have not been asked to catch many passes as Jeremy Ruckert leads the unit with six catches on the season. But the TEs have been reliable blockers and have chipped in 3 TD catches.
Offensive line: A-minus
We break this down as an A-plus for run blocking and a B-plus for pass blocking, averaging out to the final grade here. This is actually as big of a compliment as we’re paying to any unit on the team because O-line was a huge question mark coming into the season.
At 6.4 yards a carry OSU is fifth in the country in rushing average and the linemen have taken turns mauling opponents at times. Fields has had to scramble a bit more than is ideal, even for somebody who can buy time as well as he can. But the small flaws in the O-line performance so far are fixable and there is no reason to think they won’t get better as the season wears on and they get even more cohesive.
Defensive line: A-plus
Auburn’s Derrick Brown might be the best all-around defensive lineman in the country. But is any DL more destructive than OSU defensive end Chase Young?
Young creates havoc in every game because of his high motor and amazing athleticism which has led TV analyst Kirk Herbstreit to marvel as Young’s “get off” — in other words, how quickly he’s in motion after the snap. As if that weren’t enough, he makes smart, quick adjustments to stuff the run as well. Young’s certain All-American campaign has somewhat overshadowed solid play by others on the line including tackle Davon Hamilton.
Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner bring veteran experience and plenty of savvy to this unit. More important, the tackling has been much better and Harrison in particular has made some spectacular plays. Those three have combined for 14 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Yet right behind Harrison in tackles among linebackers is Baron Browning, who has 5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks to boot. Not the deepest unit on the team but a solid one.
Cornerback Jeff Okudah has been as good as advertised and is living up to his hype as a likely future first-round NFL Draft pick. After waiting so long for his first career interception, Okudah snagged three in a two-game stretch.
Safety Jordan Fuller leads the team in tackles (32) and is second behind Okudah with 2 INTs. OSU (152 passing yards allowed per game) is fifth in the nation in pass defense, a marvelous turnaround from 2018 when the Buckeyes were 86th.
Special teams: B-minus
If any part of the 2019 Buckeyes resembles a weak spot, it’s here. OSU is 37th in the nation in punt return average, 68th in kickoff returns. Explosive athletes like OSU’s should be doing more damage on returns. Kicker Blake Haubeil has missed two field goals, both from within 40 yards.
The good news is, punter Drue Chrisman has been excellent (in limited work, which is a good thing) and the coverage units have been very strong, both ranking in the top 11 nationally. Plus OSU has blocked two punts; Penn State (3) is the only team in FBS that has blocked more.