The Tigers will finally face a truly top-tier opponent. It feels like we’ve been waiting for this all season and now it’s finally inching close. With such a huge game upcoming, we decided to expand our pre-game coverage with a two-part Q&A. In this first part, we connected with Matt Tamanini of Land Grant Holy Land. Our answers to their questions are posted to their site here. We hope you enjoy our exchange below!
STS: Prior to 2017, Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops retired and Lincoln Riley was promoted. I figured after losing Stoops they’d take a step back, but instead they haven’t missed the playoff since. When the Buckeyes lost both Coach Urban Meyer and QB Dwayne Haskins, a step back seemed inevitable. Instead they’ve improved. Did that surprise you too? How has Ryan Day taken it up even another level from where Meyer had the Buckeyes the past few seasons?
LGHL: It’s a little difficult to answer that question, because I think that we’re still in a bit of an unknown area. When Meyer left Florida, he famously left the program in a pretty bad spot, from both a recruiting and culture perspective. However, when he left Ohio State, it was the exact opposite.
His 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes were both rated second nationally, so the sophomores and juniors that are now the backbone of this 2019 team are very much an extension of the Urban Meyer era. So, I knew that the team would still be incredibly talented, and more often than not in college football, when you have more talent, you win.
However, what has been surprising is just how seamlessly Day has transitioned from coordinator to head coach. Obviously we aren’t privy to every decision that he makes, but it’s been very difficult to pinpoint many (if any) missteps that he’s had since assuming control of the program.
Whether that’s in terms of the coaching staff that he assembled, bringing in Justin Fields, the offensive or defensive schemes employed, or anything else, he’s done about as good of a job as a first-year, first-time head coach possibly could. I expected there to be some growing pains for both him and Fields, but there really hasn’t been.
Granted, he’s about to get the biggest challenge of his coaching career, but it’s been pretty fantastic thus far for Fields.
STS: Clemson leads the country with just 138.5 passing yards allowed per game. Right behind them is Ohio State allowing 148.1 passing yards per game. Last season, OSU ranked 95th in the country on plays gaining 20 yards or more. What has the new defensive staff done that has made such a world of difference for the Buckeye defense?
LGHL: The vast majority of the defensive personnel is the same as it was in 2018, so there has clearly been a considerable amount of development on the players’ part year-over-year, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.
But, the biggest change has been in the defensive staff and their approach. The only coach on that side of the ball that Day kept was the legendary defensive line coach Larry Johnson; everyone else was new, including co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley. The latter will reportedly become the new head coach at Boston College, and that is cause for at least a bit of concern, because his impact has been immense.
Last year, under Greg Schiano, the Ohio State defense was almost exclusively a press-man coverage unit. This year, however, Day’s only direction to the defensive coaches was to simplify their approach and allow the athletes to make plays. Last season, a young OSU defense was slow to make decisions and often ended up making late reads and, therefore, taking bad angles.
Because of the changes, those things have been minimized, and the Buckeyes are mixing up their zone and man coverages far more than they did in the second half of the Meyer tenure. Although the linebackers are still suspect when they are forced to cover tight ends, running backs, or receivers over the middle.
STS: For my money, the teams with the four best QBs in the country are in the playoff. Interestingly, Joe Burrow transferred from Ohio State to LSU and won the Heisman. Meanwhile, Justin Fields transferred from Georgia and has thrown for 343 more yards and 18 more TDs than Georgia QB Jake Fromm. Why do you believe Burrow and Fields have found so much more success in their second collegiate stops than their first? Also, did we ever learn why Fields got the waiver to play this season?
LGHL: I think they were in fairly similar situations; they’re both incredibly talented players who were just stuck in situations behind other players and weren’t going to be able to beat them out for one reason or another.
For Burrow, it was being behind Dwayne Haskins, who went out and broke every single-season passing record in Big Ten history in 2018. For Fields, he was stuck behind returning starter Jake Fromm, who was only one year ahead of him in terms of eligibility. So, both players moved on to places where they could have more opportunities, and I think it’s worked out pretty well for all involved – except maybe Georgia.
As for Fields being immediately eligible, the NCAA doesn’t exactly give out details on those decisions, but one of the things that Fields’ side cited was a situation that involved one of his teammates on UGA’s baseball team (Fields was a middle infielder for Georgia), who at a football game last fall yelled a racial slur about Fields towards the sideline.
The player, an All-SEC player, was eventually kicked off of the team. Whether this led to a toxic environment on campus or not, I have no idea, but it would have been a pretty bad look for the NCAA to deny a waiver that included this type of situation, which had been national news long before Fields decided to transfer.
STS: Justin Fields has a 40-1 TD/INT ratio. He’s obviously blown away expectations and done as well as anyone could have hoped in replacing Dwayne Haskins. He earned an invitation to the Heisman ceremony (along with teammate Chase Young) for his performance. With all that being said, does he have any weaknesses? If so, where can it be found? Is his health ok after the scare against Michigan?
LGHL: He absolutely has a weakness, and it is actually directly tied to his lack of interceptions. One of the reasons that he has only thrown one pick is because he doesn’t often rush passes or make ill-advised throws. However, the flipside of that is that he regularly holds onto the ball too long. OSU’s pass-protection is likely their weakest unit on the team (while their run-blocking is fantastic). So, Fields has been known to take more hits and sacks than he needs to, including the one you alluded to against Michigan.
With Clemson’s excellent secondary, I would imagine that Fields will look to either throw the ball away and/or run much more quickly when there are no receivers open than he has so far this season.
In terms of his injury, Ohio State does not share much information about injuries, but the MCL strain did not apparently require surgery, and with three weeks between the Big Ten Championship game and the Fiesta Bowl, I would imagine that he will be about as ready to go as possible at this time of the year.