Opinion: Casey’s Callouts: No. 5 Ohio State midseason grades and evaluations following bye week

The Lantern
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The Buckeyes silver helmets with Buckeye leaf stickers sit on the sidelines before the Ohio State-Akron game Sept. 25. Ohio State won 59-7. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

We have reached that point in the fall season.

The leaves and weather are beginning to change, summer has begun to fade into our memory and we’ve set our sights on conference schedules and Halloween.

Things couldn’t be better, but the only thing dragging down the mood is that No. 5 Ohio State (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) reached its bye week, so we were all stuck watching then-No. 10 Michigan State head to Bloomington, Indiana, to take on the Hoosiers.

With the Buckeyes set to return to the football field against Indiana Saturday, check out my midseason grades and evaluations of where things stand for the Silver Bullets as they are currently on the outside looking in to the College Football Playoff.

Offense: A+++++

On the topic of seasons, winter is right around the corner, and the Buckeyes’ offense has reminded me of a certain holiday classic.

In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie has a big theme to write on what he wants for Christmas and nothing else is on his mind than a Red Ryder BB gun.

He falls into a deep daydream in class one day where his essay receives the same grade I am giving Ohio State’s offense: flawless.

The turning point for this offense that took them from good to great was the week that redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud was out.

The message boards were calling for Stroud’s head, wanting to see quarterbacks redshirt freshman Jack Miller III and freshmen Kyle McCord and Quinn Ewers over the Empire, California, native.

But Stroud shut those people up quickly in the two weeks following his return.

Against Rutgers and Maryland, Stroud completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 736 yards, 10 touchdowns — two more than in his first three games in 2021 — and a goose egg in the interception column.

Yes, the numbers speak for themselves, but some of the throws he has been making prove that the health of his shoulder played a big role in his struggles, whether they were a lofted, drop-in-the-bucket pass to sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the third quarter against Rutgers or majestic downfield strikes to senior Chris Olave and junior Garrett Wilson against Maryland.

Stroud has been revitalized and deserves a ton of credit for the electricity of Ohio State’s offense right now, but his supporting cast deserves an Oscar as well.

Everyone knows the abilities of arguably the deepest wide receiver room in the country, but the offensive line and freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson have been doing some dirty work during this torrid stretch as well.

The starting five on the offensive line have not allowed Stroud to hit the turf since late in the third quarter of the Tulsa game Sept. 18.

They also played a key role in putting Henderson on the map during that game, opening running lanes for the Hopewell, Virginia, native to scamper for a 277-yard, three-touchdown performance, breaking Archie Griffin’s freshman single-game rushing record that stood for almost 49 years.

In the three weeks since, Henderson has only reached the century mark against Maryland, but that was also the only game in which he had more than 10 carries. Against Akron and Rutgers, he managed 164 yards on just 16 carries with three touchdowns — those totals certainly turned some heads, specifically in Las Vegas.

Henderson has thrown his hat into the Heisman ring, alongside Stroud, as the quarterback-running back tandem both officially entered the top seven in odds to win the award.

Their efforts have propelled the Buckeyes to first in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 562.7 of total offense — on pace for the most yards per game in Ohio State history — and first in scoring offense with 48.5 points per game, making it the most dynamic and electric offense in the country.

Christmas may arrive early for the Buckeyes, whether that’s with the Heisman Trophy coming home to Columbus or the potential to win a national championship — and the offense has the reins to the sleigh.

Defense: C+

In the film, when Ralphie writes his theme, he says, “Rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity.”

He turns in his essay to Miss Shields with a big grin and fruit basket, but the sucking up could not save Ralphie from his fate.

A few weeks later he got back his essay with a C+ and a message: “P.S. you’ll shoot your eye out!”

The Buckeyes’ defense reminds me of Ralphie crafting his perceived masterpiece. They’re onto something with their recent immaculate stretch, but I am not completely sold on the unit just yet.

In the Luke Fickell and Jeff Hafley days, Buckeye Nation was spoiled with an abundance of experienced talent that showed up and showed out every week. This defense is not necessarily the case.

The unit is still young and getting their college football feet wet.

The first two weeks were evident of such when they allowed back-to-back 200-yard rushing games to Minnesota and Oregon, respectively.

They have since righted the ship upon secondary coach Matt Barnes taking over calling plays in Week 3, allowing just one 100-yard game in the previous four weeks — the irony, am I right? The secondary guy fixes the run-stopping issue.

It looks like the pass rush is starting to come together as well. The last three games, headlined by the fourth-best all-time performance for a defense, throwing Akron quarterbacks to the turf nine times, has recorded 15 sacks. This comes after tallying only four sacks in the first three weeks.

Ohio State’s defense, other than getting torched for 428 yards by Tulsa redshirt junior quarterback Davis Brin, has made a concerted effort to play solid on the back end with freshman cornerback Denzel Burke proving to be a star in the making.

In the last three games, the Silver Bullets have also allowed opponents to score a measly 12.3 points per game — down from the 28.7 mark it started off at.

Everything seems to be rolling for the defense: how could you have given them a C+, Casey?

Well, valued reader, we have to remember it was Akron, Rutgers and Maryland — who are 111th, 81st and 60th, respectively, in scoring and 110th, 99th and 32nd in total offense.

The same argument could be made for the offense, but the difference between the two units for me is the eye test. I haven’t seen that same explosion from the defense that I have seen from the offense.

In 180 minutes of football, there have only been 11 three-and-outs for the inferior opposition.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, it can only play who’s on its schedule, so the Buckeyes can’t get a real gauge of how well their defense can run with the big boys until the postseason. The remaining teams on its schedule — Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan — aren’t exactly bullying teams when they have their hands on the ball.

Ohio State’s defense has shown glimpses of brilliance, specifically in their program-best four-straight games with an interception return for a touchdown, but they haven’t achieved a consistent wow, blow-me-away status yet.

Fortunately, they don’t necessarily have to reach that pinnacle to succeed. If the offense can spot a 50-burger in every contest, then that takes a lot of pressure off the defense to perform at an elite level.

That allows the unit to just go out there, fly around to the ball and hold a sort of bend-don’t-break approach.

If they can become a top 25 defense in the country, though, look out because the Buckeyes will be in the thick of the national championship conversation.

And hey, in school, C’s get degrees  — and a Red Ryder BB gun — but A’s get you a ring.

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