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Five Questions as Ohio State looks to extend win streak at Illinois

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Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields hasn't ever lost a Big Ten game. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions as Ohio State looks to extend win streak at Illinois

COLUMBUS — This bizarre season probably needs a recalibration of standards for Ohio State.

Looking around at the rest of the College Football Playoff contenders, the Buckeyes aren’t the only ones who can simply embrace a whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality.

In the first half of its schedule, Alabama’s typically stout defense was blasted for 48 points by relatively harmless Ole Miss. Notre Dame scraped by Louisville by a 12-7 margin in one of the ugliest matchups of the season. Clemson at one point trailed Boston College by three scores and was locked in a battle with hapless Syracuse into the third quarter.

So, by comparison, Ohio State throttling an undefeated, top-10 opponent for a half, never trailing and then hanging on late to beat Indiana doesn’t seem like it should be much cause for concern. Certainly the Buckeyes weren’t perfect in that victory on Saturday, but more than ever this year, even the nation’s best teams are proving it true that winning is all that matters.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ve played four games and it’s almost Thanksgiving,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It’s just very, very bizarre. There is so much that has gone into this season that these kids have been through, to the average person, they don’t quite get that part of it. They wouldn’t understand. But when you’re in an environment like this when there are no fans and you have to bring your own energy, it’s just a different dynamic. I think that’s why you’re seeing so many strange things that have gone on this year.

“I’m not making excuses. I’m just calling it for what it is.”

What are the Buckeyes? An undefeated program with one of the most gifted rosters in the country, a stranglehold on the Big Ten East Division and a clear path back to the College Football Playoff. Ohio State can’t complain about that, even if it can still improve dramatically over the next four weeks. The homestretch starts on Saturday at Illinois, and Lettermen Row is getting ready with Five Questions for the Buckeyes.

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Ohio State defensive back Ronnie Hickman could help at safety. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

What changes will Buckeyes make in secondary?

Ohio State can no longer simply point to unique circumstances and just ignore what’s happening to its beleaguered, rebuilt secondary. Indiana certainly has a dangerous passing attack, but there’s no excuse for giving up 491 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air. Again, the Buckeyes missed out on plenty of growth opportunities it would normally have both during spring practices and in the pandemic-shortened season. But they have enough time to get it corrected, and that effort has to start immediately.

Day pointed to three areas he’ll have to evaluate heading into the Illinois trip: Personnel, scheme and coaching. He suggested after the game on Saturday that usually it’s a mixture of everything that produce issues like the Buckeyes dealt with against the Hoosiers. It seems likely that Ohio State will need to tinker with the rotation, starting at safety where guys like Ronnie Hickman, Bryson Shaw or Lathan Ransom deserve a shot to show what they can do to fix the problem after that position bottomed out on Saturday. New Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs has tough decisions in front of him, and if he doesn’t believe personnel is the problem, he’ll have to evaluate his scheme or the way he’s teaching it.

How will Justin Fields respond against Illinois?

At the podium after the game, Justin Fields didn’t hide or deny that his turnovers were a problem for the Buckeyes and that three-interception outings can’t happen to Heisman Trophy candidates on national-title contenders. It’s also a reflection of the junior’s greatness that he still engineered an attack that rolled up more than 600 yards while he accounted for three touchdowns, so it’s yet another situation that has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Fields has been hailed throughout his entire Ohio State career for his ability to avoid turnovers, and that pile of evidence certainly makes what happened on Saturday appear to be an aberration. Based on the disappointment he was feeling after it was over, the safe bet would be that Fields comes out this weekend intent on sending a message. That doesn’t bode well for Illinois.

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Ohio State freshman kicker Jake Seibert missed a field goal against Indiana. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

What is Ohio State going to do in kicking game?

There’s probably not going to be much need for Ohio State to try field goals as a four-touchdown favorite over Illinois, and this typically isn’t a stadium where kicking is much fun anyway. But if Blake Haubeil’s groin injury is going to keep lingering, the Buckeyes clearly need to get something figured out or build more confidence in Jake Seibert for the next big game they find themselves in this season.

Hitting a 44-yarder in wet conditions against Indiana was maybe too tall of an order for the freshman, but he should have been more than capable of hitting a chip shot to ice the win. Day indicated he wanted to be aggressive on fourth down in the red zone, and that’s not out of character for him. But considering he had a chance to make it a two-score game in the last five minutes, the timing suggested he might not have had faith in Seibert to convert the chance. Now, it’s understandable why he would be probably feel safer with the game in the hands of Fields than a freshman kicker. But if Ohio State can’t count on the backup to connect from 24 yards, that’s not a good sign with Haubeil’s status still unclear.

Can Buckeyes tune out College Football Playoff noise?

This season doesn’t exactly need another complication, but another is on the way for Ohio State and the top contenders around the country. The College Football Playoff committee will unveil its first rankings on Tuesday night, which will ramp up the conversation about the race for the national title. And while in reality they are worthless and a waste of time at this point, they still drive interest and the conversation in the sport — much to the frustration of coaches like Ryan Day who now have to address the rankings.

Where will the Buckeyes sit on Tuesday? It would be shocking if they weren’t in a top-four spot after beating unbeaten Indiana and taking firm control of the Big Ten race. But it also won’t matter at all if they aren’t after only playing four games, because an undefeated Big Ten champion with as much talent as Ohio State has on hand simply won’t miss the playoff. In that regard, Day might have it easier than other coaches because that just-win-out message keeps the focus inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

How is Ohio State evaluating Rushmen?

The Buckeyes have never relied solely on sacks to grade its defensive linemen, and that was true even when the Bosa Brothers or Chase Young were powering the pass rush and making the impact obvious in the box score. So, that’s also the case now when the sack totals up front aren’t quite where they normally would be for the program, which means the number of pressures and deflections are even more important in evaluating that unit.

For the most part, Ohio State has given position coach Larry Johnson what he wants so far this year. There may not be a truly dominant force like a Bosa or Young, but Jonathon Cooper is certainly elevating his game and delivered a key sack and pass breakup in the win over Indiana. The defensive tackles have done a remarkably steady job collapsing the pocket and stuffing the rush. And Zach Harrison is still flashing at times as he tries to tap into his five-star potential as a sophomore. Only Johnson can really gauge the success of the Rushmen so far, but that group has probably been playing much better than it seems to be getting credit for right now.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.