While the Ohio State offense and defense have received much attention through the first month of the season, the special teams — quietly one of the best in the nation — has been overlooked for its contributions to the team’s undefeated record entering conference play.
After defeating the Western Michigan Broncos 38-12 on Saturday, OSU coach Urban Meyer was appreciative of a punting unit that did not allow the Broncos to return any yards against the Buckeyes.
“But think about our punter, too. Our punter and the punt team’s right now, dynamic,” Meyer said. “We’re protecting. We’re covering. There’s no return yards. Net 51. That’s a good day.”
Led by junior punter Cameron Johnston, who was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after the Buckeyes defeated the Broncos, the punting unit is not allowing opposing offenses to start at a good position, which prevents them from getting near the OSU red zone. OSU special teams has not allowed a punt returner to gain more than than eight yards so far this year.
On Monday, redshirt freshman wide receiver Terry McLaurin attributed the success of the punt coverage to the man who kicks the ball.
“I know with the great punter that (Johnston) is, he’s going to give us runners the time to get downfield to make a tackle so I feel like that open field and the possibility to down a punt literally flips the field over and gives the defense a chance to start out on the five-yard line or 10-yard line,” McLaurin said.
Johnston, whose 47.4 average yards per punt is good for ninth in the nation, had three punts that resulted in a WMU starting position within 20 yards of its own end zone, including one at the one-yard line.
The Geelong, Australia, native now a two-time recipient of the Big Ten award, is the only OSU specialist on an award watch list: the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the best punter in the nation. With 64 career punts pinned within the 20-yard line, Johnston needs 14 more to tie the school record, set by A.J. Trapasso in 2008.
The punting team is not the only special teams unit playing well for OSU right now. OSU’s opponents are averaging just 17.15 yards per return on kickoffs, good for 15th in the country. Graduate transfer Jack Willoughby has made three straight field goals after missing his first attempt against the Virginia Tech Hokies. He has converted all 18 of his extra-point attempts, as well.
McLaurin, who contributes to all four special teams units, said he believes a great deal of the success OSU has had early this season is because of the play of the special teams, which he called its “bread and butter.”
A main reason why the Buckeye special teams are so dynamic is because the team’s top players who start on both sides of the ball often come on in special teams situations.
“The best players are special teams starters, like (junior safety) Vonn Bell and (redshirt junior wide receiver) Mike Thomas, they start on special teams,” McLaurin said. “Coach Meyer wants the best players out there at any particular time, so you’re going to see our starters out there with our best guys who can contribute on special teams, and I say it’s as important as offense or defense.”
In addition to success at kicking footballs, OSU special teams has been effective at stopping the other team. Western Michigan missed two kicks on Saturday, including a blocked field goal by redshirt junior Tyvis Powell, the first for OSU since 2012.
Powell recalled the play after the win on Saturday.
“We’ve been repping it, right, and in practice, I haven’t really been getting free, so we go out there and do it in the game,” Powell said. “You’re gunned up to do it because we haven’t done it in a minute, and when I got through, I was like, ‘Oh snap.’”
The special teams and the rest of the Buckeyes will look to extend their success when they begin their conference schedule by traveling to play the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. in Bloomington, Indiana.