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Ohio State’s CFP Loss Exposes the 2016 Flaws to Fix for 2017 Season

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It doesn’t take a football guru to explain why Clemson defeated Ohio State 31-0 in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers were the better team Saturday night across the board, and their experience and better game plan/execution snowballed into a blowout that was unprecedented in the Urban Meyer era in Columbus.

However, many experts did see this loss as a possibility because of the flaws that revealed themselves during Big Ten play in October. Indeed, this is the second time in four seasons a deeply flawed unit on the Buckeyes has been thoroughly exposed and leveraged by Clemson in a bowl game: the Orange Bowl following 2013 season and this 2016 Fiesta Bowl.

In 2013, it was the defense that got gashed by the Tigers a few weeks after Michigan State took advantage of similar issues to win the Big Ten Championship. This year, it was the offense that could not execute against Clemson following struggles at the end of the season against MSU (once again) and Michigan.

Just like 2013, the Buckeyes were not ready for prime time and were not one of the best teams in college football, despite being on the cusp of the BCS Championship and the CFP Final.

However, the silver lining is that a loss to Clemson once again may reveal to the Ohio State coaching staff the right way to move forward and leverage more talent and experience in 2017 to be one of the true national title contenders…just like what happened in 2014.

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Let’s start back at that 2013 loss. Before the Big Ten Championship game that year, OSU had won 24 consecutive games to start Urban Meyer’s tenure. Unfortunately, the Big Ten conference was not very good across the board then. That allowed the Buckeyes to play soft/zone pass coverage in the secondary and get away with it for a long time, despite having some NFL-level talent like Bradley Roby on the roster.

Sometimes the Buckeyes got lucky to survive against good quarterbacks and receivers. Connor Cook of the Spartans and Tajh Boyd of Clemson were more than capable of exposing the deep flaws in the defensive game plan, thanks also to those teams’ quality offensive lines.

The numbers spoke for themselves: MSU scored 34 points thanks to Cook throwing 24-for-40 for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns. Clemson took it to the next level in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers scored 40 points thanks to Boyd throwing 31-for-40 for 378 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Urban Meyer could not ignore those deficiencies, and changes were made quickly.

Everett Withers moved on from his co-defensive coordinator duties and Chris Ash came in to share the duties with Luke Fickell. A different, more aggressive approach was also installed, as Meyer wanted his defense to play press man-to-man coverage like the Spartans were using effectively against him.

That put some amazing recruits in position to become a shut down defense in 2014 and beyond, while also elevating many safeties, cornerbacks, and linebackers to high NFL draft status: Doran Grant (4th Round CB in 2015), Eli Apple (1st Round CB in 2016), Darron Lee (1st Round LB in 2016), and Vonn Bell (2nd Round S in 2016). Even with all that talent drain over the past two years, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, and Raekwon McMillan are part of the next batch ready for 2017 and beyond.

The elite players were there all along, but the game plan and scheme were not. That changed thanks to the defensive deficiencies revealed by Clemson in 2013 and fixed the following year.

The Buckeyes did not surrender passing numbers like the 2013 MSU and Clemson games on a regular basis anymore, or hardly at all. Only several teams were able to eclipse 300 passing yards against the Buckeyes (Cincinnati, MSU, Oregon in 2014; Michigan in 2015; nobody in 2016), and half of those who did could not run the ball at all.

Indeed, it’s easy to see that Ohio State’s defense carried this team through the Big Ten season to survive long enough to make the playoff. The defense generated 21 interceptions and plenty of red zone stops to keep the Buckeyes in close games. Without heroic efforts from the defense, OSU does not win games against Northwestern, Michigan State, and Michigan. Although statistically not as good, the Wisconsin and Oklahoma victories were also keyed at times by the defense.

The Ohio State defense, even with replacing 8 starters from a year ago, was quickly championship-worthy again. Make no mistake: Ohio State’s defense was one of the best two or three defenses in the country this year, despite all that youth.

Instead, the rest of the team is what failed in the toughest situations against Penn State, at times against MSU and Michigan, and against Clemson. The defense was not the problem this year, unlike what plagued the Buckeyes three years ago.

So let’s play a similar string forward to what happened this week and in the 2016 season, this time on the offensive side of the ball. Can Urban Meyer and the offense learn from this performance and improve to become championship-worthy?

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Offense always starts with how the offensive line performs, and the 2016 Buckeyes replaced everyone except senior Pat Elflein and junior Billy Price. Although Meyer and his staff have brought in great recruiting classes, one area where the team was incredibly thin in depth was offensive line.

Thus, the Buckeyes hoped for a stopgap measure in junior college transfer Malcolm Pridgeon to come in and play one of the open tackle positions. That plan derailed when Pridgeon was injured and lost for the season with a knee injury. With Pridgeon gone and not much significant development from the sophomores and juniors on the team, that forced OSU to start true freshman Michael Jordan at left guard and true sophomore Isaiah Prince at right tackle.

There is simply no excuse for a team that recruits this well to have that much unproven youth starting every game on the front line. When push came to shove against better competition, Prince and sometimes Jordan proved to not be ready to adequately run block or pass protect.

This lack of depth and experience became a problem against Wisconsin and Penn State, where the Buckeyes failed to gain 200 rushing yards despite being heavily slanted that direction in play calling. Although Ohio State bounced back to rush for over 200 yards against each other opponent until the bowl game, the wheels fell off against Clemson with only 88 rushing yards.

Against the Nittany Lions, Ohio State surrendered 6 sacks as Prince’s struggles continued at the right edge of the line. Michigan continued this trend, racking up 8 sacks in The Game. To counter this, the Buckeyes planned to throw the ball quickly against Clemson to avoid dealing with a lack of pass protection.

While that game plan resulted in only 3 sacks for Clemson, it also forced J.T. Barrett to throw a lot of swing passes and lateral throws. The Tigers were athletic enough and speedy enough to cover those and make most of those plays go for losses, so the lack of an effective pass protection wrecked the offensive game plan from the start for the Buckeyes.

Add to that the first significant injury on the line this year happened to Michael Jordan in the first quarter. His backup Demetrius Knox was not ready to go and it showed with OSU facing the best interior defensive linemen it had faced all season. Jordan played as much as he could hurt, but his effectiveness was limited and that affected the play calling as well.

If Ohio State had suffered injuries at this position earlier in the season, there’s almost no doubt that the team would have suffered another loss and missed the playoff. When that happened in the playoff, it might as well have been game over.

That cannot happen on a team with talented offensive line coaching available like Ed Warinner (who is co-offensive coordinator, but still).

This is the first problem that must be fixed for 2017.

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The offensive play calling stagnated over the past two seasons following Tom Herman’s departure from the staff because the passing game slowly became less and less of a factor. Anytime the wind was blowing or precipitation was in the sky, J.T. Barrett struggled to get anything serious going, and particularly in the long passing game.

Unlike the offensive line, there were names on the depth chart running three-deep at receiver and tight end (no returning starters). Despite this, the passing game could not get in sync all season.

Sometimes it was J.T. Barrett throwing inaccurate balls, especially on deep throws. Other times it was J.T. Barrett refusing to throw into tight windows to avoid making mistakes. Even when the ball was thrown well, Ohio State was prone to more drops than average.

That latter problem was a big concern against Clemson, as three different receivers dropped FIVE third-down passes that would have picked up first downs or touchdowns. Drops cannot be tolerated, and yet, Ohio State could not find anybody outside Noah Brown in the Oklahoma game to catch the ball consistently.

That led to Curtis Samuel being the only good receiving option and the better running option as well at hybrid back. That is not a recipe for success, as Michigan and Clemson keyed on Samuel and kept him contained. Ohio State couldn’t beat the better competition with anything or anyone else.

Against Michigan State, Michigan, and Clemson, the Buckeyes could not get past 127 passing yards. The only opponent in that stretch that gave up a passing touchdown was MSU.

The team was totally one-dimensional, just like at the end of 2015 when Ezekiel Elliott and Barrett ran basically a triple-option offense to beat Michigan and Notre Dame at the end of the year.

Ironically, one of Clemson’s potential weaknesses was pass defense. It showed when Barrett threw a couple of consecutive deep balls late in the game and drew easy pass interference penalties. That was one of those drives ended by a dropped pass though, and the same problems cropped up once again.

The passing game is the second problem to fix for 2017.

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The other major deficiency of the Ohio State offense was play calling, which has not been really effective since Tom Herman’s departure. The combination of Tim Beck and Ed Warinner at offensive coordinator struggled with a loaded offense in 2015, but some chalked that up to a quarterback controversy between Cardale Jones and Barrett.

It should have been no surprise that without those great weapons in 2016, these two co-coordinators would have even greater difficulties making a reliable game plan on offense. Every week it seemed that one of the most effective weapons on the offense (Curtis Samuel and HB Mike Weber) would be totally ignored.

The team regressed in effectiveness as the season wore on, which is not something that should ever happen to a championship-level team.

Thus, step one will likely be a change in philosophy and a shake up on the offensive staff. Just like with Everett Withers in 2013, it will be difficult to justify keeping both Beck and Warinner in the leadership roles.

One would assume with the offensive line being a critical need moving forward, Warinner and his replacement as line coach Greg Studrawa need to be retained. That means do not be surprised if someone replaced Tim Beck to add a different approach to the offense and the passing game.

Also, it may be time to move on from Zach Smith, the wide receivers coach. While effective in recruiting, Smith has not developed these receivers well based on the results on the field.

The approach needs to be freshened up. Meyer does not need a genius like Herman, as he has a great offensive mind himself. He just needs an innovative thinker and one would imagine he can find one or two in his network of friends that has led to hires like Larry Johnson and Greg Schiano previously. Who knows, maybe Chip Kelly will make his way to Columbus now…?

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Change is painful, but Clemson forced Meyer’s hand to do so in 2013. Ohio State changed its defense and immediately won a title.

Another loss to Clemson and the drive to actually be championship-level across all 9 units of the football team now must turn to improving the offense across the board. That part of the team was not good enough to be much better than 9-3 this season even with all the recruited talent, but the defense carried the team to the playoff (just like the offense carried the 2013 team to the cusp of a Big Ten championship and BCS Championship appearance).

If OSU and Meyer leverages this loss to significant changes that make the Buckeyes a true title contender with a solid offense in 2017, Clemson should really be sent a gift basket for motivating the Buckeyes to improve and be title-worthy.

The defense was good enough in 2016 and should remain so in 2017 to win a national championship. Now the offense (and to a lesser extent, the special teams) must rise to that level for Ohio State to reach the pinnacle where Clemson and Alabama have resided alone since 2014.

Time will tell if the offense can be fixed like the defense was. You can’t have much better than Urban Meyer at the helm, so don’t be surprised if all those critical flaws with the 2016 team disappear in a juggernaut of 2017.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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Talking10 Podcast Episode 100: Something, something Urban Meyer

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Ohio State made its decision on Urban Meyer. Andy and Phil are here to break it all down for you and give you the truth in a hazy situation. What better way to celebrate episode 100 of the podcast than to spend 50 minutes breaking down a mess of a situation in Columbus, right?

We’ll talk our reactions to the press conference, break down the actual findings of OSU’s investigative report and we’ll even talk how the media-at-large and the OSU media handled the fallout from Wednesday night’s press conference.

Don’t forget you can listen to the podcast each week via Radio Public and other podcasting apps. 

Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and Twitter @talkingB1G

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Urban Meyer and OSU AD put on suspension following investigation

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The media stakeout of the Ohio State Board of Trustee’s meeting can now end. It only took 12 hours or so, but answers finally came. 

According to multiple reports, including from the AP, OSU head coach Urban Meyer is suspended for the first three games of the season. In addition, athletic director Gene Smith will serve the same suspension from Aug. 31 to Sept. 16 — both will not receive pay during that time frame as well. 

Both came under fire as this story unfolded. It began just prior to the Big Ten media days in late July, the story that Zach Smith had been arrested for criminal trespassing in April of this year broke and Meyer fired Smith on Monday morning of the start of Big Ten media days.

Brett McMurphy then detailed in an exclusive report that Smith had previously been “arrested” back in 2015 for a second allegation of domestic abuse against his then-wife Courtney Smith. 

Meyer was questioned about that arrest and allegation from 2015 at media days and struck out against reporters repeated questioning. He would deny knowing of the arrest report back in 2015. 

However, further reporting by McMurphy put that denial in to further question and Ohio State decided to get to the bottom of it. 

Once Meyer was put on paid administrative leave, he would put a statement out admitting to knowing about the 2015 incident and alerting athletic administrators of the domestic abuse allegations. 

Meyer has stayed silent since that statement and awaited the outcome of the 14-day inquiry in to whom knew what and when and what action was taken. 

That investigation ended this past Sunday, with the committee verbally advising the Board of Trustees on Monday morning of its findings. Two days later, the Board of Trustees would come to meet publicly and then behind closed doors to discuss what would happen to Meyer and others involved in this situation. 

Meyer’s suspension is for the first three games, and on the field that is a big hit with three FBS games coming at the start of the season. OSU kicks off the year against Oregon State, plays a Big Ten contest against Rutgers and a massive game against TCU at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

We will have more on this situation and the reaction to what Meyer and Smith had to say on the talking10 Podcast tomorrow. 

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Report: OSU to suspend Urban Meyer

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The Ohio State University board of trustees have been verbally read in on the findings of a 14-day investigation in to the conduct of football head coach Urban Meyer. 

So, what will happen next? 

According to the Columbus Dispatch, it appears a suspension or even lighter punishment is coming for Meyer:

“Two sources connected to the investigation said the likely recommendation to university President Michael V. Drake is a suspension for Meyer. Drake and the board could also opt for a ‘time served’ punishment since Meyer has been removed from football activities for more than two weeks.”

Meyer has already been on suspension (or paid administrative leave) for the better part the month of August.

The meeting on Monday was able to take place because it was an “informational meeting” and no public business was conducted. However, there is a meeting scheduled for 9a.m. on Wednesday to discuss just what punishment would be recommended. 

Ultimately it will be the university president that makes the final decision, but the board of trustees will meet to send their recommendation to President Michael V. Drake, who is likely to adhere to the recommendation of the board. 

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Ohio State wins Cotton Bowl Classic: The good, bad and what it means for 2018

Buckeyes defense dominates USC en route to Cotton Bowl Classic victory.

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Some may say that Ohio State had a real gripe about not being selected to the College Football Playoff this season. Whether the Buckeyes believed they were snubbed or not, they certainly took out any frustration on USC in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

Ohio State used a dominating night on defense and just enough offense to beat the Trojans 24-7. Four turnovers were forced by the Buckeyes defense, resulting in a pick six and a huge shift in momentum late in the game too.

The win sends quarterback J.T. Barrett out on a high note, but it wasn’t his best effort on the field. He had just 114 yards passing and no touchdowns, while also putting up a Buckeyes-best 66 yards on the ground as well.

Luckily those 66 yards were enough to find the end zone twice in the first half for OSU.

Barrett got the Buckeyes on the board on their first possession and then put the Buckeyes up 24-0 on a 28-yard run late in the second quarter. However, it appeared momentum was shifting late in the half as Ronald Jones II put the ball over the goal line with just 1:29 to play in the first half.

That was it for the scoring though and it was a massive defensive message to the critics of the Buckeyes.

It all added up to the Big Ten coming away from a loaded day of action with a 5-0 record. Not only did the Buckeyes win, but so did Northwestern to help the Big Ten continue its banner bowl game start.

The Good

J.T. Barrett Continued to be Legendary

Few players in the history of Ohio State football have had the career that quarterback J.T. Barrett has had. Yet, it feels strange to say his career has been legendary. Maybe its the fact that he missed out on a Big Ten and national championship in 2015? Maybe it’s the fact that it somehow took until his senior season to win a Big Ten title as the quarterback?

Whatever it was, Barrett’s career just seemed incomplete. But, on Friday night Barrett added to his collegiate legend, setting the Big Ten’s total yards record that was previously held by some guy named Drew Brees.

There’s little doubt that Barrett is going to be remembered in Columbus for some time. Most importantly, Barrett was able to complete a post-season with a Big Ten championship and a win in a New Year’s Six game.

Not a bad way to go out in your college career.

Defense Got Turnover Happy

Ohio State showed it had a really good defense down the stretch run of the regular season, but it seemed to finally all come together in the Cotton Bowl. The Buckeyes forced USC quarterback and talked-about No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Sam Darnold, to look rather average at best.

Part of Darnold’s issue came in the form of turnovers. Well, Darnold and USC in general, as the Trojans gave up the ball via turnover a whopping four times.

The last of which came as Darnold got hit from behind and let the ball fall right in to the waiting arms of an OSU defensive lineman.

It all added up to a USC offense that came in averaging 35 points per game being completely shutdown.

Let’s just say it was a great time for OSU to give its best defensive performance of the season too.

The Bad

Ohio State’s Offensive Performance

While a 24-7 scoreline would seem flattering, Ohio State’s offense really did minimal work on Friday night.

The Buckeyes amassed just 277 yards on 55 plays in the game, including just 114 yards in the passing game. Barrett getting a win in his final game was nice, but his passing game wasn’t. Barrett finished the game 11 of 17 passing for just 114 yards and no touchdowns.

Even more telling? The dynamic duo of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber was held to just 57 yards combined.

Given the domination of the defense all of this seems to be a bit nit-picky, but it should also be worrisome because this offense was up and down all 2017.

What it Means for 2018

It’s hard to say that this one game was make or break for any Ohio State players and their NFL draft status, but that is really the key from this game. Did Sam Hubbard’s great night make his decision easier? How many other guys will take off after this game?

Ultimately that is what is going to matter most heading in to the 2018 offseason.

However, what we can take away from the Cotton Bowl is the fact that the Buckeyes need some real work on the offensive side of the ball. Some of it is just simply growing up for young players, but we also saw what we saw most of this year in the pass game for OSU — there aren’t a lot of receiving options.

That group has got to regroup in a major way or the Buckeyes won’t be going anywhere but backwards on offense in 2018.

Dwayne Haskins is a better pure passer than J.T. Barrett, but it may not matter if no one can get open. Sure, you can give credit to the Trojans secondary, but the Buckeyes receivers did nothing to help themselves either.

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