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Ohio State Needs Defensive Backs "Sooner" in Showdown Against Oklahoma

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For most of the season opener at Indiana, Ohio State’s defense struggled to slow down Hoosiers quarterback Richard Lagow and wide receiver Simmie Cobbs. Indiana led the Buckeyes 14-13 at the half, with Cobbs making several acrobatic receptions that allowed Indiana to retain possession.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

But in the second half, Ohio State made a series of adjustments that limited the damage the Hoosiers did through the air. While Cobbs still made some plays, the Buckeyes started using their safeties to help the cornerbacks in coverage, forcing Lagow to find other targets. Cobbs finished with 11 catches for 149 yards and one of Lagow’s three touchdown passes, but Ohio State dominated the Hoosiers in the second half (outscored IU 36-7), eventually pulling away for a 49-21 victory.

Next up for the Buckeyes is another team that sports crimson and cream uniforms – Oklahoma. The Sooners come to Ohio Stadium after dominating UTEP 56-7 in their opener, looking to avenge last season’s 45-24 home loss to Ohio State.

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Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield made quick work of the overmatched Miners, tossing just one incompletion among his 20 attempts and finishing with 329 passing yards and three touchdowns. And he did that in just one half, as new head coach Lincoln Riley decided to sit his senior quarterback and numerous other starters after the Sooners had jumped out to a 35-0 halftime lead.

For the game, Mayfield, backup (and former Texas A&M transfer) Kyler Murray and redshirt freshman Tanner Schafer combined for 396 passing yards on 32 completions with just four misfires. Those 32 completions were shared among 14 different players –Mark Andrews, Jeff Badet, Lee Morris, Marquise Brown, Grant Calcaterra, Jordan Smallwood, CeeDee Lamb, Chase Nevel, Abdul Adams, Dimitri Flowers, Jeffery Mead, Rodney Anderson and Myles Tease. Even though Mayfield didn’t complete a pass to all of these players in his two quarters of work, it certainly appears that he does not lack for capable targets in the passing game.

In fact, the biggest concern for the Buckeyes’ defense may not be the Sooners’ wide receivers, but their playmaking tight ends. Andrews, the leading returning receiver following the departure of Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Geno Lewis, led the way with seven catches for 134 yards and touchdown against UTEP with fellow tight end Calcaterra added two catches and a score of his own. Tight ends are typically covered by linebackers, but Ohio State may elect to use or involve a safety to defend Andrews or Calcaterra.

Compounding the Buckeyes’ challenge is Mayfield’s mobility. While Lagow is a talented pocket passer, Indiana chose to use quicker passes to help negate Ohio State’s pass rush. Mayfield is athletic enough to make plays with his legs, so if Riley draws up variety of rollouts or waggles to get his quarterback on the move, this could force the Buckeyes’ defensive staff to counter by using a linebacker as a spy to contain Mayfield, which means one less defender to help in coverage.

Coming into the 2017 season, Ohio State fans recognized that the loss of three first-round draft choices was going to force the Buckeyes to play some talented, but inexperienced, players in the secondary. In week two, those players are needed “Sooner” rather than later.

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is writing and podcasting for www.theozone.net. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.