In the era of the College Football Playoff, teams with a relative shot at the national championship see the importance of making a statement early in the season. Coach Urban Meyer and the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes have that opportunity on Saturday at No. 14 Oklahoma.
This meeting marks just the third time, and the first since 1983, that the Buckeyes will play the Sooners. In his fifth year as OSU’s coach, Meyer faces off against Bob Stoops in his 18th season with Oklahoma. The two met in the 2008 BCS National Championship.
Two prolific quarterbacks — Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford — and two sublime coaches created an atmosphere for a college football game that is rarely seen. Meyer’s Florida Gators won that game for his second national title in three years.
In 2016, the same scenario remains. Two Heisman-caliber quarterbacks, the same coaches. Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, is a Herculean early-season showdown.
In Week 1, Oklahoma played the Houston Cougars and former OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman at NRG Stadium in Houston. By the final whistle, Oklahoma had an 0-1 record — facing an uphill climb.
OSU redshirt sophomore defensive end Sam Hubbard said he and the Buckeyes know they will face a determined team.
“We feel like they have their backs against the wall,” Hubbard said. “They’re a big time program just like us and they’re not going to roll over cause we’re Ohio State. We really got to prepare because they’re just as motivated as us, if not more.”
Hubbard went on to say that the practices this week were intense, focusing on exact details that could be the difference.
“I think what Oklahoma does a real good job is they pull off the gas, they put on the gas,” said co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. “They control the tempo but it’s not consistent. We just need to be ready all the time for mach speed.”
One of the team’s first tasks is containing redshirt junior quarterback Baker Mayfield. Finishing last season with 3,700 yards passing and 36 touchdowns, Mayfield is one of the favorites for the 2016 Heisman Trophy.
Mayfield has the ability to create opportunities downfield by avoiding tacklers and scrambling outside of the pocket. Schiano said that he’s preparing for Mayfield the way he prepared for Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brett Favre when Schiano coached for the Chicago Bears.
“I think what has occurred there over time is their offensive line and receivers know that he’s creative (when scrambling). They really work hard at finishing plays,” Schiano said. “We’re going to really have to maintain discipline in our pass rush lanes. Eye discipline is going to be key for our secondary.”
Running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine present a challenge for the OSU defense. The dynamic duo has totaled 246 yards rushing on 36 carries with three total touchdowns through two weeks. Hubbard and redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis lead a rather inexperienced group into one of college football’s crystal palaces in the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Stadium.
On the offensive side, Saturday’s gargantuan contest serves as an opportunity for redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett and the offense to get back on track.
Against Tulsa in Week 2, the offense fed off the momentum harnessed by the defense’s two first-half touchdowns. The Buckeyes had 151 first-half total yards. Senior H-back Dontre Wilson said he doesn’t expect another slow start in Week 3.
“I know we have to establish the running game,” Wilson said. “Once the running game pops, then we can start throwing the ball.”
Barrett is similar to Mayfield in style, but might have the advantage in the passing game. The Sooners’ defense has allowed an average of 296.5 yards passing in 2016.
The OSU receiving corps continues to be a mystery as to who who will be the main target for Barrett, but wide receivers coach Zach Smith remains confident.
“This is what we do all year round,” Smith said. “They’ll come in ready. They’re not going to come in overwhelmed. We’ve built up to this moment.”
OSU asserting itself on all levels against a nationally recognizable opponent will firmly place Meyer’s team as a national contender. Improving to 3-0 leading into the nine-game Big Ten slate would be an indicator to Meyer that his young team has matured to a level he has desired since the beginning of fall camp.
“This is going to be one of those prized fights,” Meyer said. “It’s going to be a big one.”