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Football: Improvements in Ohio State cornerbacks a must heading into weekend against Oklahoma

Ohio State redshirt junior cornerback Denzel Ward prepares for a play during the Buckeyes’ season-opening 49-21 win over Indiana on Aug. 31 in Bloomington, Indiana. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow made it clear early that the Hoosiers’ offensive game plan was to attack an Ohio State secondary that lost both starting cornerbacks and a starting safety from a season ago.

For the most part, that plan proved effective as Lagow finished the game 40-for-65 in pass attempts with 410 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, even though Indiana lost 49-21.

“Our defense was exposed big time in the first half. Our pass defense was awful,” Meyer said Thursday. “It was not complicated, they were just picking on the corners.”

Playing against a quarterback in Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma on Saturday, Ohio State’s secondary is going to be in for another major challenge. Mayfield finished his team’s season opener 19-for-20 with 329 passing yards and three touchdown passes en route to a 56-7 beatdown of University of Texas-El Paso.

Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said Monday that defending against an athlete like Mayfield could provide his secondary with issues, if it doesn’t step up its game from this past weekend.

“[Mayfield]’s got incredible arm strength, and when I say incredible, he can really throw the ball down the field,” Schiano said. “He is most anxious when he has a little bit of space and he can let receivers down the field because he has a strong-enough arm to go roll over there and throw it all the way back over there. And you saw it in our game, he had a touchdown on us last year.”

In its matchup against another gifted quarterback in Lagow, Ohio State seemed to get off to a slow start.

Through the first half of the game, Lagow showed no hesitation, frequently passing into what had been a hyped up secondary for Ohio State. He targeted Denzel Ward — the third man in the three-man cornerback rotation last season — 10 times during the half and managed to complete three of those passes for a total of 29 yards and a touchdown, the first Ward had ever surrendered.

By the time the half was over, Indiana gained at least 15 passing yards on eight occasions. Of those, five were allowed by the fresh-faced cornerbacks.

“We gave up three plays of plus-25 yards or more. You can’t do that,” Schiano said. “They made some plays on us. In looking at it, it was a group of guys that have played some, but haven’t started, haven’t been in that role.”

But the inexperience was not the only cause for struggles among the corners.

Indiana’s leading receiver for the game, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Simmie Cobbs, trounced all over Ward and Kendall Sheffield — his two primary defenders — in the first half. He had no trouble leaping over the 5-foot-10 Ward and six-foot Sheffield, making acrobatic catches and back-shoulder fades as though it were nothing more than practice on his way to 98 receiving yards and a touchdown on just seven first-half receptions. He finished the game with 149 receiving yards with 11 receptions.

Meyer said the difference in height can put a corner at a disadvantage, but that the gap should not be enough of an obstacle to allow for blown coverage.

“Everyone wants a 6-foot-1 corner. There’s not many of them out there. We had Eli [Apple], Marshon [Lattimore] and Gareon [Conley] were all the long corners. Denzel, he’s not that small, but you have to be exceptional in technique,” Meyer said. “Obviously the vertical jump, to be able to knock a ball out, we practice the heck out of that. That’s much more difficult. Can be done, though.”

And it seemed that in the second half, the gap in height seemed to have much less of an impact on the corners.

With 10:11 remaining in the game, Lagow again looked Ward’s way to another 6-foot-4 receiver, Donovan Hale, and attempted to complete what would have been a 20-yard pass. But this time, Ward won the battle and came down with an interception.

The improved play in the second half came not just from Ward, but also from the rest of the secondary. The unit held Lagow to just 151 second-half passing yards and one touchdown after he tallied 286 passing yards and two touchdowns through the air in the first half.

“I was concerned a little bit during the first half, but I was pleased the way they rebounded in the second half,” Schiano said. “Hopefully they’ve got some experience under their belt now and we can move forward.”

Schiano added that with the pressure of the position of cornerback, the unit will need to continue to exhibit a similar performance level moving forward if it is going to live up to the lofty standard set at Ohio State.

“Around here, the standard is you don’t allow catches,” Schiano said. “When you play corner, it’s not the five you made that stick out, it’s the two you missed. And that’s the position. If you don’t like it, go play something else.”

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