After opening the season with a top-five win, the heavily favored Buckeyes look to put up points against their Sun Belt foe.
The No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes took care of business last week in their season-opening matchup against now-No. 8 Notre Dame. Now, the Buckeyes get some breathing room as they host Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference Saturday at noon in Columbus.
Arkansas State? Never heard of ‘em
This week marks the first time Ohio State and Arkansas State have faced off, and just the fourth time the Buckeyes have played a Sun Belt opponent. Ohio State has previously recorded wins over Marshall (2004, 2010) and Troy (2008) — though, at the time Ohio State played them, Marshall was in Conference USA.
Home is wherever I’m with you
It’s fitting that the centennial season at Ohio Stadium begins with a five-game homestand for the Buckeyes — one that kicked off with a bang last week with Ohio State’s first-ever, season-opening top-five win. A 106,594-person crowd came out for the night game, the highest attendance at the Horseshoe since 2017. Chief among the crowd were more than 60 top recruits from upcoming classes who got to see Ohio Stadium at its finest. Oh, and also LeBron and Bronny James.
This weekend’s matchup against Arkansas State might not draw such a large crowd, but still, there’s no beating the atmosphere at the Shoe.
Standing in the Hall of Fame
Ohio State will honor its 15-person 2022 Athletics Hall of Fame inductees Saturday during halftime. The class includes four former football players, including cornerback Shawn Springs, the third-overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. Basketball great Aaron Craft is also being inducted. Take that, Iowa State.
We don’t get no respect
Despite the massive, nationally televised win Saturday (did we mention it was against a top-five opponent?), Ohio State fell from No. 2 in the AP Poll to No. 3 following Week 1. Credit to Georgia, who blew a now-unranked Oregon team out of the water, but Alabama stayed in the top spot after a shutout win over Utah State.
While these early polls hardly matter in the grand scheme of the season, there’s no doubt that achieving a blowout win Saturday is all but a necessity in maintaining Ohio State’s positioning against SEC foes ahead of non-conference play.
Dances with Red Wolves
Speaking of Saturday’s opponent, Arkansas State beat FCS Grambling State 58-3 in their season opener last week. The Red Wolves dominated just about every statistical category in the overwhelming victory. Here are just a few to note:
- Outgained Grambling State in total yardage 572-102
- Allowed just two yards per play
- Had zero punts to Grambling State’s eight
- Gained 34 first downs to Grambling State’s nine
- Maintained possession for nearly 12 minutes more than their opponents
This game which, again, came against an FCS opponent, was surely a breath of fresh air for an Arkansas State team that struggled in 2021.
Last season, the Red Wolves finished at the bottom of the Sun Belt’s West Division with a 2-10 overall and 1-7 in-conference record. Don’t let that fool you, though, as the Sun Belt was mightier than usual in 2021: Louisiana and Coastal Carolina both earned national attention with 13 and 11 wins, respectively.
That’s just offensive
Let’s talk more about that offense. Arkansas State is currently 12th in the nation in yards per game, with 572, and 10th in scoring offense with 58. Of course, that’s with just one game having been played (and this will not be the last time we reference our limited data points at this point in the season).
Leading the charge for the Red Wolves is senior quarterback James Blackman, a super-senior in his sixth year of eligibility. You might remember Blackman: He spent his first four seasons with Florida State, including two as the Seminoles’ leading passer.
Saturday, Blackman was 15-of-20 for 210 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Of note, while he’s not prone to take off (in fact, his career rushing stats look a lot like C.J. Stroud’s), Blackman can make plays with his feet — or at least he did in his final season opener. In fact, he had two touchdowns on two rushing attempts last week against Grambling State, thereby tripling his career rushing touchdown total.
Blackman is probably among the most experienced quarterbacks currently in the FBS — even more so than Penn State’s Sean Clifford. Facing a secondary that is still finding its footing, Blackman might be able to make some plays. For Ohio State, it doesn’t help that Blackman is not alone in his Power Five roots.
Feeling the transfer portal effects
Leading the way in receptions for the Red Wolves was Champ Flemings, who hauled in seven catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. Like Blackman, the fifth-year senior receiver came from a Power Five program previously (Oregon State).
And rounding out this highlighted group of super seniors on offense, running back Johnnie Lang, a sixth-year player who spent his first four seasons at Iowa State, led the Red Wolves in rushing last week. Lang had 124 yards on 13 carries and scored one touchdown Saturday.
Mr. Jones and Harley
Head coach Butch Jones is kicking off his second season at the helm with the Red Wolves. You might remember Jones from his time at Tennessee, Cincinnati and Central Michigan. He actually won two Big East titles during his time with the Bearcats. Unfortunately for Jones, after going 0-6 in the SEC in 2017, he got booted from Tennessee and the head coaching ranks more broadly for a few years. But don’t feel too sorry for him. He joined Nick Saban’s crew at Alabama before joining Arkansas State in 2021.
Perhaps more relevant for this week, assistant Red Wolves head coach Rob Harley is the great-great nephew of Ohio State great Chic Harley — as in “the House that Harley Built.” The younger Harley happened to be a walk-on on Ohio State’s 2002 National Championship team honored last week. It’ll be the second-straight week a former Ohio State player comes to coach against the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe.
Day of our Lives: Season 4
Perhaps the least dramatic soap opera ever, Ryan Day’s tenure at Ohio State got a boost in ratings this past weekend against Notre Dame. The Buckeyes head coach is now 34-4 overall with one more premiere, top-five win.
While Day is still growing as a head coach (and probably should consider handing over play-calling duties), his offseason savvy seems to have paid off with the addition of former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
Jim for the win
On that note, Jim Knowles’ defense was as good as advertised and showed rapid improvement from the Buckeyes’ performance in the Rose Bowl to now. While the defense started off hot, it only continued to improve throughout the game. Notre Dame had just 72 yards in the second half and punted on its final six possessions.
And because the scoreboard matters, Ohio State’s scoring defense was phenomenal. The Irish’s 10 points were the fewest against a top-five opponent since 1996.
Arkansas State can put up points — at least they did against Grambling State. Again, it’s hard to know how prolific the Red Wolves truly are given just a single game’s worth of data, but Knowles’ new defense will have a test from a set of veteran offensive players who can make plays.
Not a second(ary) to lose
Ohio State’s secondary still has room for improvement, but the unit was better than they were, say, last year against Oregon, Michigan or Utah. One area of focus will assuredly be big plays, as the Irish had four passing plays of 20+ yards. It was also somewhat troubling that Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner, a first-year starting quarterback coming into a night game in the Horseshoe, completed his first eight passes.
The Red Wolves’ passing attack was prolific against the likes of Grambling State. Still, it’s unlikely the Buckeyes’ defensive backs will be on the ropes against Arkansas State’s receivers.
Bringing down the house
Or, just bringing the house. Ohio State saw an outstanding performance from its defensive line — especially in the second half. Moreover, some surprising players led that performance. In his first start for Ohio State, defensive tackle Mike Hall had, perhaps, the sack of the game on 3rd-and-10 on Notre Dame’s final possession of the game, thus sealing the victory for Ohio State. Hall added two tackles for loss.
The Red Wolves allowed zero sacks against Grambling State last week. That will probably change tomorrow.
Fortified play from the linebacker position certainly played a role in the defensive line’s dominance Saturday. As we know, Ohio State has struggled at the linebacker position for several seasons. However, things finally seemed to click Saturday with the performance of linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, who earned Bronko Nagurski Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Notre Dame. The fourth-year linebacker, who was second on the team in tackles in 2021 and the defensive MVP of last year’s Rose Bowl, had a team-high nine tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks Saturday.
Seeing red (zone)
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes are first in the FBS in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 100% of their attempts from scoring range. We’ll, for now, disregard the fact they’re tied with 64 other teams for the No. 1 spot as we’re just one game into the season.
Ohio State’s offense was not as prolific as we might have liked to see against Notre Dame, but the Buckeyes were facing a fierce defense. For those thirsting for high-flying action, tomorrow will be a much better option.
Getting the job done
C.J. Stroud had far from his best game as starting quarterback at Ohio State, but it was hardly a poor performance. And it makes sense that there were some fits and starts for the second-year starter, as he was missing his favorite target in Smith-Njigba. The junior quarterback began his second season under center going 24-for-34 for 233 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Not bad against a defense that finished last season ranked 15th in total defense.
Further, while the numbers he put up were not monster, Stroud remained the favorite in Heisman betting after Week 1. He’ll certainly have the opportunity to pad those stats tomorrow.
We miss you, JSN
Star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba may be out against Arkansas State, and that’s okay. Smith-Njigba was hurt against Notre Dame Saturday and Day has said that Stroud’s favorite target won’t return until he’s at full strength — something the head coach surely felt comfortable with given the next two matchups against Arkansas State and Toledo.
If you’re worried about who Stroud will throw to tomorrow, never fear. Electrifying return man Emeka Egbuka had a career game at receiver, hauling in nine catches for 90 yards and the Buckeyes’ first touchdown of the season. Beyond Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr. had five catches for 56 yards. Even the tight ends got involved. Senior Cade Stover had three catches for 14 yards.
And of course, there’s fifth-year senior wide receiver Xavier Johnson, whose touchdown catch put the Buckeyes ahead in the third quarter and whose tackle on the ensuing kickoff put the Irish in terrible field position from which they could not emerge.
Too fast, too furious
Despite a first half where the Buckeyes seemed off their rhythm, Ohio State showed some tempo in the second half against Notre Dame, catching the Fighting Irish on their heels.
After two punts on two drives to open the third quarter, the third drive was the charm as the Buckeyes drove downfield going 78 yards in 10 plays in under five minutes. That drive, of course, wrapped with Stroud’s touchdown pass to Johnson.
For the first time all night, Notre Dame’s defense looked winded as Stroud ran what wasn’t exactly a hurry-up offense, but just enough to keep the Irish on their heels. And Buckeye Nation breathed a sigh of relief as we saw a vestige of the quick-strike offense which made Ohio State so powerful last season — offense we’ll hopefully see a whole lot more of against the Red Wolves.
This here is a run-out-the-clock situation
On the flip side, after taking things up a notch, the Ohio State offense seemed to melt right into a clock-killing, fourth-quarter drive that effectively eliminated any hope of a comeback for Notre Dame. Running back TreVeyon Henderson took the first three carries for 15 total yards before fellow back Miyan Williams took over rushing duties, carrying the ball seven times. Williams also had a critical catch on 3rd-and-3 deep in Ohio State’s own territory to keep the drive going.
We’ll also take a moment here to credit the offensive line. Though the unit allowed an early sack on Stroud, the highly touted group paved the way for Henderson and Williams’ performances and a very respectable 172 rushing yards against a fierce Notre Dame defensive line.
What was impressive about that 95-yard, 7:06-minute drive was how the offense managed to switch gears from going tempo right before. Many teams struggle with the run-out-the-clock situation. Especially facing a team like Arkansas State, being able to put things away early and drain the clock down is an important skill.
Kicking and screaming
Ohio State’s special teams have been a source of stability for most of recent memory. Unfortunately, the performance Saturday was something we’d rather forget. Noah Ruggles, who was Mr. Reliable last season going 20-for-21 on field goal attempts and 74-for-74 on extra points, missed his one and only field goal attempt Saturday from 39 yards away.
Granted, we’re being super picky here. On a weekend where some teams lost actual games because of missed extra points, we must admit that Ohio State’s special teams never put the result in jeopardy Saturday.
Elsewhere on special teams, Jesse Mirco put up a strong performance punting for the Buckeyes — something we haven’t had to say in a long time. Mirco punted five times Saturday (compared to 31 times all of last season) and averaged 45 yards per attempt. Hopefully we won’t see much of Mirco tomorrow.
The question here (not to jinx anything) is less so about if Ohio State will beat Arkansas State, but rather if the Buckeyes will manage to beat the enormous 45.5-point spread Vegas has laid out for them.
The game brings about as different an atmosphere compared to last week as possible: a noon game, an unranked opponent from the Sun Belt and fewer unknowns on both sides of the ball.
Still, Ohio State will need to avoid the letdown that inevitably follows a win like the Buckeyes had in their opener. And there are some tricky players on the Arkansas State side who could make things difficult, especially defensively, if Ohio State shows up in the wrong mindset.
This opponent doesn’t feel like a typical Group of Five matchup — possibly because the Red Wolves have benefited so much from the transfer portal. It doesn’t help that their head coach also has SEC roots and a proven ability to win.
Still, Ohio State squashed much of the speculation surrounding the program heading into the season. The offense didn’t panic when it was down and made second-half adjustments to take and maintain the lead. More impressively, the defense grew by leaps and bounds in just a few months (and with many of the same personnel) to become what looked like an elite unit last week. The Buckeyes looked in many ways like a College Football Playoff contender.
Now, let’s see that offense at work.