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Monday, September 26, 2011

The Big Ten Awaits - How Do The Buckeyes Measure Up?

At three wins and one loss as the calendar is turning to October, Ohio State fans are wondering what type of team the 2011 Buckeyes have as they prepare for the beginning of Big Ten conference play. Ohio State will play Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Illinois, and Wisconsin over the next five weeks, a stretch that will demonstrate if the Buckeyes are contenders or pretenders in the conference race.

How does Ohio State compare to other Big Ten teams offensively, defensively, and special teams? What can Ohio State fans expect as the season progresses?

The Offense

Ohio State's offense has had its share of highs (the Akron game) and lows (the Miami (FL) game), and lots of in-between (Toledo, Colorado). Ranking last in the conference at this stage in total offense at almost 341 yards per game, Ohio State may not improve dramatically in this area with a true freshman quarterback at the helm. Braxton Miller's mobility allows him to keep plays alive, but it could also be a concern for Ohio State fans, as Miller 1)fumbled the ball after a hit on a run against the Hurricanes, and 2) has had an injury history in his high school career. One can only wonder if the coaching staff will start to dial back on the designed quarterback runs as conference play begins.

The offensive line has played well, despite ongoing concerns about depth. The Buckeyes currently rank seventh in the conference at 184 yards per game rushing. The return of Mike Adams at offensive left tackle for the Nebraska game on October 8th will strengthen this unit tremendously. Considering Miller's inexperience, Ohio State has had to rely on its strong running game paved by the offensive line - with better opponents on the horizon, the offensive line will have its strongest challenges yet.

Jordan Hall has become the center piece of the offense. The versatility Hall provides as a runner, receiver, and returner makes me wonder how the coaching staff will use him once Daniel "Boom" Herron returns for the Nebraska game on October 8th. Carlos Hyde's physical running style may be needed to spell Hall and Herron.

Jake Stoneburner started off the season as the top receiving option for Ohio State, but has seen true freshman wide receiver Devin Smith become Braxton Miller's primary target. DeVier Posey's return in October can only help to take pressure off Stoneburner and Smith. The passing game, ranked eleventh in the conference at nearly 157 yards per game, will probably resemble the 2008 season in terms of simplicity, as Ohio State will have its share of growing pains with Braxton Miller at quarterback.

The Defense

"The Silver Bullets" have long been the strength of the team, and this year's edition seems to be no exception. Ranking fourth in the conference at allowing just over 276 yards of offense per game, Ohio State will need to continue its strong performance with the difficult conference games beginning.

The loss of defensive end Nathan Williams has hurt Ohio State's pass rush. Williams is scheduled to return against Nebraska, which will only bolster a strong unit led by John Simon. Ohio State has had ten sacks so far this season, tied for second with Wisconsin in the conference.

The linebacking crew, led by senior Andrew Sweat, have solidified the defense. Sweat and Etienne Sabino are leading the team in tackles, and look for true freshman Ryan Shazier to become a bigger factor entering conference play. If Braxton Miller is the impact freshman on offense, Shazier would qualify as the impact freshman player on defense.

The secondary seems to have taken a step in the right direction with the move of Christian Bryant into a safety position, alongside C.J. Barnett. The return of Travis Howard, combined with the solid play of cornerbacks Brad Roby and Dominic Clarke, make the secondary less of a concern going into Big Ten play.

The Special Teams

This area of the team continues to be an area of concern. Does Ohio State have its coverage units prepared for Big Ten play? Ohio State gave up its opening kickoff last year against Wisconsin. This year's team, as evidenced with the poor game against Miami (FL), is not built to come back from behind.

Punter Ben Buchanan had a rough game against Toledo with a blocked punt, but bounced back nicely against Miami (FL). Buchanan is averaging nearly 42 yards a punt, and strong play will be needed in Ohio State's upcoming contests for field position supremacy.

Place kicker Drew Basil started off poorly in the Akron and Toledo games, but has seemed to come around with his performaces against Miami (FL) and Colorado. The 47 yard field goal against Colorado can only help Basil's confidence. Considering Ohio State's immature passing game, and the level of competition increasing, Basil may be needed even more so in conference play for Ohio State to maximize all scoring opportunities within the red zone. Ohio State currently is tied with Purdue at seventh in red zone scoring opportunities.

As I wrote up above, October will demonstrate to Ohio State fans what type of team the 2011 Buckeyes have. Contender or pretender? Ohio State fans will know by the end of the month.

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