In Ohio State’s first two games of the year, its passing defense performed poorly, allowing more than 380 passing yards in each game. The inexperienced defensive backfield, which lost three players early to the NFL draft, looked incompetent at times.
But in the Buckeyes’ next four games, all of which came against lowly regarded, run-heavy teams, no opposing quarterback passed for more than 88 yards. In Saturday’s game against Nebraska, their secondary might be tested for the first time in more than a month.
When redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Lee transferred to Nebraska from Tulane, the Cornhuskers thought they might have just landed a stud signal-caller. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 220 pounds, Lee looks the part. And when he throws the ball, his cannon arm is readily apparent.
But the early on-field results were not pretty to open the year.
He combined for five touchdowns and nine interceptions in consecutive games against Oregon, Northern Illinois and Rutgers. Despite the struggles, Ohio State still sees the talent.
“We definitely respect him,” sophomore safety Jordan Fuller said. “We see the talent. We see the arm. We see his confidence in the pocket. So we have to be ready for that.”
Through six games, Lee has completed 109-of-202 passes for an average of 243.3 yards per game, and tacked on 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The one trait Lee does not possess is an ability to run or escape the pocket. He has not rushed for more than five yards in a game this season.
Lee often uses five-step drops and waits for plays to develop which will give Ohio State’s defensive line more opportunities than usual to rush the quarterback.
“I think it’ll be a good game for us just because he’s a pro-style guy who wants to sit back there and scan the field a little bit, which we haven’t seen very much of,” sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa said. “So, we’re excited for that, to get after him.”
The Buckeyes have not faced a team whose primary offensive strategy was to have its immobile quarterback drop back since Lagow tore their defensive backfield up in Week 1. Even when Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield racked up yards against Ohio State, he used his mobility as a threat.
If Bosa and the Buckeyes’ fearsome defensive front, which combined for six sacks and 12 tackles for loss against Maryland Saturday, can pressure Lee, he could be forced to make poor passing decisions. Lee will be dropping back with a less-experienced offensive line, which includes a true freshman protecting him at right tackle.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said he believes Lee had difficulties early in the season because he struggled to get over bad plays, especially when he threw two pick-6s against Northern Illinois. He said improving quarterbacks’ ability to rebound from interceptions is the hardest thing to coach, but he believes Lee is constantly improving in the area.
“We’re going to have to really work hard to affect the passer,” Schiano said. “Because if we don’t, he’s a very fundamentally sound quarterback and he’s got a good arm.”
Given the Buckeyes’ early-season secondary issues, not allowing Lee to have time in the pocket could help negate the concern of Lee picking on inexperienced cornerbacks. That will be even more important due to the smaller-than-normal cornerback rotation.
Ohio State will be without starting cornerback Damon Arnette for the first half of the game due to a suspension as he was flagged for targeting in the second half of the game against the Terrapins. Head coach Urban Meyer said cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kendall Sheffield will start and freshman Jeffrey Okudah “will work in.”