It's a showdown of preseason favorites in the Big Ten and Pac-12 when Ohio State hosts Oregon this Saturday in one of the top games for the Week 2 slate in the 2021 college football season. The Ducks and Buckeyes were victorious in Week 1, but both teams left the opener with room to improve. As always in college football, teams can make big jumps in performance from the first to second Saturday, and nothing is as good or bad as it appeared. In other words, knocking the rust off for both teams in close games could be a good thing with this high-profile showdown on tap.
Ohio State's opener at Minnesota was great for college football fans, but coach Ryan Day probably would've preferred a one-sided affair to break in some of the new pieces on the roster, allow quarterback C.J. Stroud to get comfortable in replacing Justin Fields and afford game snaps for a few answers to emerge at key spots on defense. The trip to Minneapolis was tough, as the Buckeyes trailed 14-10 at halftime but rallied in the second half behind Stroud's big plays and a key defensive score in the third quarter. With a full game under its belt, Ohio State should only get better the rest of the way and is still firmly entrenched as the favorite in the Big Ten.
While Ohio State had a battle on its hands versus Minnesota in Week 1, Oregon narrowly escaped with an opening week victory over Fresno State. The rest of the Pac-12 North went 0-5 in Week 1, so the Ducks' victory — albeit in a very shaky performance at times — over Fresno State was the lone bright spot in the division. The Bulldogs led in the fourth quarter, but coach Mario Cristobal's team used a clutch fourth-down touchdown run by quarterback Anthony Brown to escape with a 31-24 victory. The trip to Columbus is tough, but the close victory versus Fresno State might provide a needed wake-up call for the Ducks.
Ohio State holds a 9-0 series edge over Oregon. The Buckeyes and Ducks haven't played in a regular-season matchup since 1987. Ohio State defeated Oregon for the 2014 national title and also earned a 26-17 victory in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
Oregon at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -14.5
When Oregon Has the Ball
Deciding how much stock to put into Week 1 performances is one of the toughest evaluations to make when weighing team strengths and weaknesses early in the college football season. An unusual 2020 season already clouded the view of some teams going into this year. And after a long layoff, a sluggish performance in Week 1 might not be the best indicator of where a program is before conference play.
With the above in mind, how much should Ohio State read into Oregon's 31-24 victory against Fresno State in Week 1? The Ducks probably didn't unveil the full playbook or scheme on either side of the ball, but Cristobal's program trailed in the fourth quarter and needed a late drive to escape with a win. Against the Bulldogs, Oregon averaged only five yards per play, and 17 of the 31 points came off turnovers. The Ducks have to play better on offense to have a shot at the victory versus Ohio State, and there's no question this unit needs quarterback Brown to have a clutch performance. The Boston College transfer shared time with Tyler Shough late last season, and last Saturday against Fresno State, he connected on 15 of 24 throws for 172 yards and a score while also adding 62 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Brown has only one start to his credit in Eugene but started 28 games while at Boston College. Ohio State is one of the toughest places to play in the country, but Brown has the necessary experience to keep the offense on track.
Brown certainly has to play better than he did in the opener for Oregon to win, but the senior won't have to carry this attack. The Ducks boast one of the Pac-12's top backfields with CJ Verdell and Travis Dye (138 combined yards versus Fresno State, and a standout offensive line with all five starters back from last year. Additionally, there's plenty of depth and speed at receiver. Johnny Johnson III, Mycah Pittman, Kris Hutson, Jaylon Redd and Devon Williams will be a handful on the outside for Ohio State's defense. With Verdell and Dye leading the way, Oregon can copy Minnesota's game plan to find yardage on the ground and control the clock. However, the Ducks are also better positioned to make plays through the air than the Golden Gophers were.
The 2020 version of the Buckeyes' defense ranked among the worst in school history. One game into the season, Ohio State looks like it picked up where it left off the previous year. Of course, reading too much into one matchup is dangerous, especially when coordinator Kerry Coombs' group was shorthanded in the secondary with Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown unavailable and safety Josh Proctor injured during the game. The Buckeyes allowed 203 yards on the ground and 205 through the air, but just one snap went beyond 22 yards. Most importantly for Day, this unit delivered when it needed to, as end Zach Harrison forced a fumble that was returned for a score by tackle Haskell Garrett.
Neither Ohio State's defense nor Oregon's offense were hitting on all cylinders or likely showed their entire playbook in Week 1. However, while a jump in offensive production is likely for the Ducks, if the Buckeyes are healthier in the secondary and can win the battle up front, maintaining pace with Day's high-powered attack on the other side is a tough ask.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Even though Ohio State has a talented quarterback room, replacing Fields was never going to be completely seamless or without a few ups and downs in the process. The Buckeyes got a glimpse of that last week, as new starter Stroud was inconsistent in his first opportunity for extended action. The redshirt freshman connected on eight of 14 throws for 58 yards in the first half but rallied with five completions over eight attempts for 236 yards and four scores in the final two quarters. Stroud's ability to rebound after a slow start in a tough environment will serve the young quarterback well going forward, and with Day's ability to develop signal-callers, there's little doubt he will improve going forward.
Of course, Stroud doesn't have to do everything to lead Ohio State to a victory on Saturday. The California native is almost like a point guard in this offense, as the Buckeyes have arguably the best offensive line in college football and certainly possess the No. 1 group of receivers with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson on the outside. In last week's game, Olave and Wilson combined to catch nine passes for 197 yards and three scores. Oregon's secondary surrendered 298 passing yards in last week's matchup over Fresno State but will regain the services of DJ James and Jamal Hill after both players missed Week 1 due to a suspension. The return of those two players is crucial, especially with a deep Buckeye receiving corps on the other side.
Stopping the prolific Ohio State passing game will certainly require tighter coverage from Oregon's secondary, but the play in the trenches is going to be just as impactful — assuming Cristobal's team is at full strength. The status of Athlon Sports first-team All-America edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is uncertain after an ankle injury suffered in the opener. If Thibodeaux is unable to play or is limited, it's a significant setback for an Oregon defense that needs to pressure Stroud and stress a standout offensive line. Also, according to Pro Football Focus, Thibodeaux graded out as the Ducks' No. 2 player against the run last year. His presence in this area is crucial, as the Buckeyes can roll out a couple of running backs — Miyan Williams, Master Teague III and TreVeyon Henderson — to push an Oregon front that allowed nearly 170 rushing yards a game in 2020.
When Ohio State's offense is on the field, the two players who will garner the most attention are Stroud and Thibodeaux. Does Stroud look more comfortable and play with more overall efficiency in his second start? And for the Ducks, is Thibodeaux able to play and at what level can he produce? If the sophomore can play at a high level, Oregon's defense should be able to create a few problems for Ohio State's attack.
This matchup was pegged all offseason as one of the top non-conference games of the 2021 campaign. But with a spread of just over two touchdowns, and a sluggish Week 1 victory for Oregon, some of the appeal has dimmed. The Pac-12 could use a high-profile win after a rough start to the year, while a win for the Buckeyes would entrench their spot in the top five going into Week 3. Most importantly, this matchup should provide a better window into where these teams are after an up-and-down opening week performance. Ohio State hasn't lost at home since '17 and has yet to lose a regular-season matchup under Day. The guess here is Oregon wins some battles early and stays within striking distance for a half. However, Stroud and the Buckeyes' prolific receivers eventually get on track, and the defense steps up in the final two quarters, as Ohio State moves to 2-0 on Saturday.
Prediction: Ohio State 41, Oregon 24
Podcast: Complete Week 2 Preview, Predictions & Picks Against the Spread