COLUMBUS, Ohio — There’s no point in downplaying the challenge, and Urban Meyer didn’t bother.
There’s also no reason for Ohio State to back down. And the Buckeyes clearly won’t despite paying the proper deference to one of the most dangerous running backs they will have faced in recent memory.
Penn State star Saquon Barkley is a threat to score on any play. He’s elusive, speedy, tough to tackle and more than capable of creating problems as a receiver when he’s not piling up yardage as a running back. Ohio State also has seen enough Heisman Trophy winners and finalists during Meyer’s tenure to know where Barkley stacks up among the best players in the nation.
“He’s the best all-purpose guy we’ve probably faced maybe in my career,” Meyer said. “He’s obviously a great running back. They do a good job using him and creating matchup issues.
“No disrespect for the great running backs, but you have different ways of bottling up great running backs. It’s hard, especially this guy, really hard. The fact that they motion him out and create matchup nightmares, that’s what makes this guy [a weapon]. … He’s as good an all-purpose running back we’ve seen.”
But Barkley isn’t the first Heisman-caliber athlete to line up against the Buckeyes.
While they don’t have a flawless record against them all, there is a track record of success in slowing them down — most notably when they face off against top-flight backs, as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Alabama’s Derrick Henry can attest.
This time around, Ohio State again has all the tools it could possibly need to at least contain Barkley and set itself up for a huge win on Saturday at the Horseshoe.
There is simply no substitute for talent, and Ohio State has recruited and developed well enough for long enough that it can match up even with an other-worldly rusher such as Barkley.
The Buckeyes have more depth and skill on the defensive line than perhaps any team in the country, and that’s where a mission like stopping Barkley begins. Ohio State has the ability to plug holes on the interior, thanks to the size and strength of guys such as Dre’mont Jones, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill. The Buckeyes also have four rangy, mobile defensive ends in Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa, Jalyn Holmes and Tyquan Lewis who can chase down plays on the perimeter.
Right behind that unit, the Buckeyes can unleash a couple of linebackers with tailback-type speed, with Jerome Baker leading the way and Dante Booker emerging as he gets more comfortable in the starting lineup. If Chris Worley gets back to 100 percent from his foot sprain this week, he will provide another option in the middle for the coaching staff to consider with Tuf Borland and Baron Browning having held their own during his injury.
And in the back end, Damon Webb’s improvement at safety and the rise of Jordan Fuller alongside him provide another level of security if Barkley threatens to break one of his explosive runs.
“Just swarm to him,” Hubbard said. “He runs through arm tackles very easily. If we stay fundamentally sound, in our gaps and don’t try to make big plays, make him come to us, then when somebody gets hands on him, the rest of the [Silver] Bullets come flying. It’s going to take a group effort. It’s not going to be one guy who stops him.”
Extra preparation time
While Barkley was dealing with a physical Michigan defense last weekend and adding 3 touchdowns to his Heisman Trophy campaign, Ohio State’s players were relaxing on the couch and the coaching staff was getting an extra glimpse at the film during the off date.
The Buckeyes will be fresh and likely as healthy as they’ve been defensively all season. The coaching staff will have as much information as it could possibly need and the benefit of a bye week to implement schemes. There’s really not much more Ohio State could have asked for as it gears up for Barkley.
“It’s like going to a buffet,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “All the food is there, but you’re not going to eat everything. It’s the same way with our defense. Certain weeks we have certain calls that are up, they’re live, and that’s what training camp is for. Get all the stuff ready — that’s the whole menu — then you select what fits best against the team you’re playing.
“The challenge when you have two weeks is you have to make sure you don’t put too much on that menu, because you have a little extra time and you really watch them and study them extra. It still comes down to what the players feel comfortable doing.”
Figuring that out with an extra week of practice undoubtedly is a bonus.
The Nittany Lions are squeezing in extra touches for Barkley as a kickoff returner, and Ohio State has had issues with ball placement from its kickers when it tries to set up the aggressive coverage unit.
With an extra week to shore that up, do the Buckeyes have a plan to pin him near the sideline to avoid letting somebody averaging 30 yards per return with a touchdown already to his credit get free? Or might it simply be easier to just have Ohio State’s strong-legged kickers boot the ball out of the back of the end zone?
Meyer has a plan in mind. But he won’t be tipping his strategy before, well, kickoff.
“We’ve adjusted that and it’s changed,” Meyer said. “So what’s the definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So we’re working extremely hard on that.”
Saquon Barkley isn’t invincible
Nobody knows any better than the Buckeyes that Barkley can explode on any given play. Two years ago in the Horseshoe, he racked up 194 yards on the ground and snapped off a long of 56 to establish his credentials as one of the Big Ten’s best tailbacks, even as a freshman. Just last week, he erupted for a 69-yard touchdown on just the second play of Penn State’s comfortable win over Michigan.
But the Nittany Lions were easily blown out by the Buckeyes during their last visit to Ohio Stadium, despite the gaudy numbers from Barkley. And after that huge early run against the Wolverines, he added only 39 more rushing yards on 14 carries, a similar kind of effort to the 20-carry, 56-yard outing two weeks earlier against Indiana.
So, Barkley can be contained. And Ohio State has all the tools needed to do it.
“[Defensive line coach Larry] Johnson gets motivated and he takes personal pride when teams try to come in here and run the ball,” Hubbard said. “That’s something he’s been preaching, and we have a big challenge. He’s a special player, makes his offensive line look great just finding any holes, making opportunities where there are none.
“We definitely don’t need to get ourselves up for this challenge.”
The Buckeyes obviously aren’t wasting any time trying to convince themselves it won’t be a big one.
They’re clearly not intimidated by it, either.
The post Ohio State defense has all the tools it needs to shut down Saquon Barkley appeared first on Land of 10.