As Ohio State rides into Virginia Tech for a heavily anticipated rematch to open the 2015 season, here are five things observers from both sides should be watching for on Monday.
Who is going to win the battle on the outside?
Maybe the most intriguing one-on-one battle in the game will take place outside the hashmarks between Tech junior cornerback Kendall Fuller and OSU junior receiver Michael Thomas.
The matchup — between two players who ESPN’s Todd McShay has projected as first-round picks in the 2016 NFL draft — could be crucial in deciding the outcome of the game.
In last year’s contest against Tech, Thomas was the lone bright spot in the Buckeyes’ passing game as he hauled in six passes for 98 yards and a score.
If Fuller — who had five tackles last year at Ohio Stadium — keeps Thomas in check, that will force the less-experienced players to step up, which bodes well for Tech.
OSU will need Thomas — who said he “can’t wait to go against (Fuller) on Monday” — to replicate his success from 2014 and give whoever is under center for the Buckeyes a safety net to throw to, because they can’t just count on junior running back Ezekiel Elliott to carry the offense.
Without Bosa, what now?
Redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard and sophomore Jalyn Holmes are listed as co-starters at the defensive end position left vacated by suspended junior Joey Bosa.
Bosa is one of the best — if not the best — defensive players in the country. Neither Hubbard nor Holmes will be able to truly replace the 2014 unanimous all-American, but the Buckeyes will need the two to play well and be disruptive against Tech.
Hubbard’s progression has been raved about by the coaches throughout spring and fall practice. Holmes saw the field sparingly last year, but after adding 25 pounds and repping with the first team in offseason, he projects to be much improved.
Bosa’s presence impacts the whole defense because opposing offensive units have to dedicate two blockers to him in an attempt to slow him down. That means that there is one fewer blocker available to impede pass-rushing linebackers like senior Joshua Perry and sophomore Raekwon McMillan.
The challenge for Hubbard and Holmes is being disruptive and creating enough plays early on that Tech’s offense has to adjust to their presence. If they can do that, the effects of Bosa’s absence could be minimized.
Braxton will get the ball. But how?
Redshirt senior Braxton Miller is a familiar face to Buckeye fans, but on Monday, they will see him in an unfamiliar role.
Miller will make his highly anticipated comeback for the Scarlet and Gray after missing last year due to injury.
He is listed as an H-back, but what his role on the field will actually entail (with the exception of being the punt returner, as OSU’s official depth chart lists) is unknown.
What is known is that the Huber Heights, Ohio, native is a dynamic athlete — in fact, Miller called himself the “best athlete in college football” — who can make video game-like plays with his legs.
Coach Urban Meyer has known since May about Miller’s position switch, meaning the coach with the third-highest winning percentage in college football history has had nearly four months to figure out ways to get Miller the pigskin in space.
No matter where the former quarterback lines up on the turf at Lane Stadium on Monday, expect Miller to make an impact.
Farris joins the “Slobs”
One of the cogs to the Buckeyes’ 2014 run to the national championship was the impenetrable wall formed by the five members of the offensive line, known affectionately as the “Slobs.”
Billy Price, Taylor Decker, Jacoby Boren, Darryl Baldwin and Pat Elflein settled in after a rocky start to pave the way for players like Elliott and OSU’s two quarterbacks in then-redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett and then-redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones to break out in a big way.
In last season’s Week Two matchup against the Hokies, things did not go well for the line. Barrett was sacked seven times under the offensive line’s protection, and Elliott rushed for just 32 yards.
A guard swap between Elflein and Price after Week Three — with Elflein moving from left to right and Price vice versa — made a big difference for the unit that became one of the best in the country in the second half of the season.
Now in 2015, four of the five members of last year’s offensive line return. The only change comes at the right tackle spot, left vacant by Baldwin’s departure to the NFL. Filling in for him, which was originally considered a competition but was confirmed by Meyer after the Spring Game in April, will be redshirt senior Chase Farris.
Farris, despite not starting a game last season, played in all 15. Originally brought in as a defensive lineman, he was moved to the offensive line during his freshman year, back to the defense side in 2013, and finally moved back to the offensive line for 2014 and 2015.
The left side of Decker and Price — a 2015 preseason first-team all-American and 2014 freshman all-American, respectively — is considered the stronger half of the line, meaning Farris and Elflein will receive a lot of challenges from a talented Hokies pass-rush.
How much will the home crowd play into things?
Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium has never hosted a No. 1 opponent. OSU, the first-ever Associated Press unanimous preseason No. 1 team, will change that on Monday.
The 66,233-person capacity stadium should be rocking with fans looking for their team to put OSU in an early hole for the second season in a row after handing Meyer his only loss at Ohio Stadium last year.
Meyer, who has not lost a road game in three years with the Buckeyes, and several of his players said they are anticipating an atmosphere that is hard to match anywhere else.
Tech coach Frank Beamer said in Wednesday’s teleconference that Monday night’s game is the biggest in the history of Lane Stadium. When asked what the second biggest game was, the two-time ACC coach of the year said, “I think this one is first and second biggest game.”
Decker said in July that the most difficult homefield advantage that he’s had to deal with in his career was in Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, where last year the Buckeyes needed two overtimes to top the Nittany Lions. Senior defensive lineman Tommy Schutt said on Monday that he expects Lane Stadium to bring an equal amount of energy and pressure from the stands.
Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen, but the stadium — which ESPN’s Bruce Feldman named in 2007 as college football’s second scariest place to play — should be rocking.
When Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasts and Beamer and crew take the field to the deafening noises from the home crowd, it’s difficult to imagine any player with a pulse not getting at least a little bit rattled.
Kickoff between the Buckeyes and Hokies is set for 8 p.m. on Monday in Blacksburg, Virginia.