Ohio State looks to remain unbeaten on Saturday, as the Buckeyes are set to square off against Maryland (2-3, 0-1) at noon. Here are five things The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz will be watching for at Ohio Stadium.
Can OSU convert on third down?
Despite having one of college football’s premier punters in junior Cameron Johnston, OSU needs to try and save the Geelong, Australia, native’s leg by converting on third down at a higher clip.
Through five games, OSU ranks 103rd in the country — and third-to-last in the Big Ten — in third-down efficiency. The Buckeye offense has only picked up the first down on 23 out of its 66 attempts so far this year.
OSU’s ho-hum .348 conversation rate is in stark contrast to 2014, when the Scarlet and Gray was one of the nation’s top teams in third-down conversion percentage, ranking third overall with a mark of .520.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said third-down conversation “hasn’t been our strength” this season, while adding that the issue stems from timing and execution issues from the quarterbacks and receivers.
Redshirt junior quarterback Cardale Jones and his receivers will need to find the timing on third down soon if the team hopes to maintain a grasp on the No. 1 ranking.
Fortunately, Saturday may be a good opportunity to do so because Maryland’s defense sits in the middle of the pack nationally, ranking 75th in third-down conversion percentage.
OSU will need to show improvements on third down against the Terrapins and in weeks beyond, as the struggles are holding back the offense and consequently, the entire team.
Third-down efficiency isn’t the only thing holding back OSU. Penalties, on both offense and defense, are limiting the Buckeyes growth.
The Buckeyes committed eight penalties — which brought their season total to 40, 111th in the nation — resulting in 109 yards against Indiana.
On the potential game-tying drive for the Hoosiers, OSU committed two critical defensive penalties — a facemask and pass interference — that gave Indiana automatic first downs.
However, the most costly penalty came in the first half when redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller committed an illegal block on a play that junior running back Ezekiel Elliott scored a touchdown on. The infraction by Miller nullified the score, and OSU was unable to put points on the board on the remainder of the drive.
The surfeit of penalties is on the forefront of the coaches’ minds. On Monday during his press conference, Meyer said the word “penalties” five times.
“When you have the penalties and turnovers, that does — that stops efficiency,” he said.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell conceded that some flags will be thrown due to the aggressive press-man defense the team plays, but he has no tolerance for the “foolish ones, the facemasks, the things where you take a bad angle.”
“We can handle the aggressive ones, but the foolish ones are what we gotta make sure we do a better job. We can’t put ourselves in those situations,” he said.
OSU will need to avoid self-inflicted wounds against Maryland, as the Buckeyes clearly have more talent, but unnecessary penalties could prove to be an equalizer versus the Terrapins.
Will Curtis Samuel factor in more?
In the days leading up to OSU’s game at Indiana, Meyer made a point to say that he wants sophomore H-back Curtis Samuel to play a bigger role in the offense.
Samuel came into the game with seven carries for 94 yards and a score to go with 13 catches for 158 yards and another touchdown.
The Brooklyn, New York, native hardly factored into the game against the Hoosiers, however, only getting a single touch: a four-yard carry in the second half.
This caused many to wonder what had happened to the emphasis that was supposed to be placed on Samuel getting the ball. Meyer answered those questions on Monday when he said Samuel had been dealing with back spasms and was limited in practice the week before the game.
Meyer further added that Samuel was feeling better after the game, and should be 100 percent against Maryland.
One would expect Meyer’s declaration of Samuel’s touches should carry over, and the H-back will play heavily into OSU’s offense against the Terrapins.
The Buckeyes made three trips to the red zone against Indiana, coming away with just two field goals.
The team made much of its living in the red zone last season, scoring on 63 of its 74 trips (85.1 percent), including 53 touchdowns. That has not carried over to 2015, as only 12 of its 16 trips have resulted in points (75 percent). Of those 12 trips, only half have resulted in touchdowns.
The 75 percent mark ranks 108th in the nation and the worst among undefeated teams. Only Illinois and Minnesota have a worse red zone success rate in the Big Ten.
Meyer said penalties and turnovers have been responsible for the Buckeyes’ red-zone issues.
“It’s not just one problem, it’s a variety of problems,” Meyer said.
One solution proposed on Monday was to substitute redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett as a red-zone quarterback, where he had more success in 2014 than Jones has had this season.
Meyer said that idea has been tossed around among the coaches but is not planned at the moment.
“We’ve thought about it. We’ve had that conversation,” Meyer said. “At this time we haven’t made any decisions on that right now.”
Saturday’s game could feature a large number of possession changes, and not just because of kicks or punts.
Maryland is worst in the country with 17 turnovers in five games this season. OSU comes in just a few spots below, tied for ninth worst with 13 cough-ups.
The Terrapins have thrown a remarkable 15 interceptions, which alone would tie them for the most total turnovers in the country. They have also added two lost fumbles.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, have been more evenly split, throwing seven interceptions and losing six fumbles.
As far as taking the ball away, OSU is tied for 42nd in the country with nine forced turnovers, while Maryland is tied for 50th with eight.
The game will likely be a high-scoring affair — at least in OSU’s favor, as Maryland ranks 114th in total defense — but if the Buckeyes continue to cough up the football at such a high rate, they could have trouble maintaining momentum.
That is, until whichever Maryland quarterback gets the start tosses it right back.