For the third time in four games, the Ohio State football team is preparing to play while coming off a loss. The most recent of those losses — a 35-21 defeat against Virginia Tech last weekend at Ohio Stadium — led to the Buckeyes falling to No. 22 from No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25.
OSU’s first chance to avenge the loss is set to come against Kent State, but on top of winning the game, the Buckeyes might be looking to make a statement in hopes of salvaging their reputation.
The Lantern sports editors picked five keys to the game that might help make or break the Buckeyes’ season going forward.
1. Can redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett be kept on his feet?
Regardless of how obvious it seems, it’s been said before and it will be said again: Barrett is no Braxton Miller.
Nothing makes that more true than the difference in athleticism between Barrett and the injured senior quarterback. While Barrett is still athletic, he just simply does not have the escapability Miller has.
While the latter had opportunities to show off his athleticism in the pocket even while playing behind a star-studded offensive line last season, Barrett has been tasked with keeping the play alive behind a line that has crumbled multiple times through the first weeks of 2014.
If the line continues to falter, look for Barrett to continue struggling — even against a school like Kent State. He looked his best when making quick throws on screen passes and a few downfield looks against Navy, but when the pressure started rising against the Hokies, he began forcing throws and severely under-throwing targets on multiple occasions.
Then again, it’s hard to blame a guy who was sacked six times in the fourth quarter alone.
2. The return of junior defensive lineman Noah Spence
The OSU defensive line is really good.
Is it the best in the nation? Maybe, but the matchup with Kent State will actually be the first time anyone has had a chance to see the line at work in live-game action.
Yes, the team’s already played two games, but that has been without Spence, who is arguably the most athletic and most important playmaker of the group. He doesn’t have the size of senior Michael Bennett, sophomore Joey Bosa or fellow junior Adolphus Washington, but he has the speed, athleticism and mindset to blow up plays on a regular basis.
After missing the past three games — dating back to OSU’s Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in January — because of a suspension stemming from a positive test for the drug ecstacy, Spence should be playing with a chip on his shoulder and trying to prove his worth.
Think what former Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde was able to do after returning from his suspension last season, and imagine if Spence can replicate that type of impact, but on the defensive side of the ball.
3. Will Kent State try to emulate the Hokies?
When Virginia Tech came out lined up in a cover-zero defense, the Buckeyes seemed completely lost.
This week, coach Urban Meyer said his offense is designed to play against a base 4-3 defense, but the Buckeyes haven’t had a chance to play against that yet this season. If Kent State decides to take the Hokies’ game plan into its matchup with OSU, the Buckeyes have to be prepared to adjust accordingly and find a way to have much more success than they did last week.
Multiple players said OSU has been practicing for the cover-zero this week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be fully prepared for it against the Golden Flashes.
If the offense doesn’t adjust and Kent State comes out fast, it could be an unexpectedly long day for the Buckeyes.
4. Does Urban Meyer have a trick up his sleeve?
While OSU hasn’t looked great this season, neither has Kent State.
The Golden Flashes are 0-2 this season after losing to Ohio University and the University of South Alabama to open the season. OSU is a heavy favorite for a reason, and Meyer has pulled out a few fan-favorite trick plays in games against similar opponents.
OSU’s roster this season is loaded with potential to run a few trick plays, especially against Kent State. Look for anything from redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones joining Barrett on the field — something Meyer did with Miller and former Buckeye backup Kenny Guiton last season — to a potential reverse pass, fake field goal or fake punt.
While there is no guarantee this will happen, Buckeye fans could even be treated to a pass attempt from redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall, who was a standout quarterback in high school.
5. How (or will) OSU honor Jason Bitsko?
Just 10 days before the start of Kent State’s season, the Golden Flashes lost their starting center, Jason Bitsko, who was found dead in his off-campus apartment. At the time, the police said the cause of death was an undetermined medical issue.
An OSU spokesman could not confirm whether OSU would honor Bitsko before, during or after the game.
Bitsko was a high school teammate of Braxton Miller at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio.