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Behind enemy lines: Q&A with Land-Grant Holy Land ahead of Maryland-Ohio State

Get to know the No. 10 Buckeyes a little better.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football lost at Indiana last week, so the Terps need to upset either Ohio State or Penn State in the season’s last two games to clinch bowl eligibility. The first chance comes Saturday against the Buckeyes and former Maryland QB commit Dwayne Haskins.

Ohio State is 9-1 and controls its own destiny in the Big Ten, but might need some help if it wants to return to the College Football Playoff. To get to know the Buckeyes a little better, here’s Matt Tamanini (@BWWMatt) from our SB Nation friends at Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33). Our corresponding Q&A will be available on their site soon.

Testudo Times: Ohio State, like Maryland, has had its football season overshadowed by investigations, criticism and uncertainty. How have the players, coaches and fans handled the outside noise throughout the year?

Land-Grant Holy Land: That’s a bit of a mixed bag. The players seem to have handled it about as well as anyone could have hoped. I think there was definitely a downside to having all of the coaching upheaval around Urban Meyer’s suspension, but to a man, the players have stayed above the fray, and approached their responsibilities as professionally as possible. As for the coaches, they have certainly all said the right thing, but there has been a noticeable difference in the buckeye offense from when Ryan Day was completely in charge, and when Meyer returned to the sideline. Now, certainly a lot of that is likely due to the level of opponents that Ohio State faced in Weeks 1-3, but the play calling has obviously tightened up and begun to look more like what was called for J.T. Barrett in the past since Meyer came back against Tulane.

As for the fans, as I’m sure you can imagine, there hasn’t been a single cohesive response. There have been some on the fringe who have held rallies in support of Meyer all the way to the other side where there is a contingent that still think he should be fired immediately. Fortunately, once the games started, and especially once Meyer was back coaching full-time, the discussion of that has mostly died down, except for when Zach Smith feels the need to start tweeting, or Brett McMurphy releases another thinly-sourced, immediately denied article.

TT: On the field, the Buckeyes are 9-1, but in somewhat underwhelming fashion. What’s the vibe around this team at this point in the season?

LGHL: Like with the response to Meyer’s situation, this is all over the place. I think most level headed fans can identify a multitude of issues that this team has. They’re sheer talent level has allowed them to overcome those issues in every situation except for against Purdue, but the problems are real. There are still some that point to the record as if that is the only indication of production – which I suppose in some respect it is. However, most fans are at best cautiously optimistic about how this team can perform the rest of the season. For many, they are still hoping that the coaching staff can get out of their own way resulting in marked improvement over the last two regular season games, and into a potential Big Ten title game and beyond. But, for me, that feels like little more than a pipe dream to me.

TT: Maryland fans know Dwayne Haskins well. In an alternate universe, he’s the Terps’ quarterback right now. Instead, he’s a Heisman candidate under center for Ohio State. What’s made him so successful this season, and what have defenses done to slow him down?

LGHL: When Haskins has been on, he has thrived on pin-point accuracy and being able to fit the ball into small windows. Unfortunately for Buckeye fans, his production has been decreasing practically every week since mid-season.

Some of that is because Meyer seems to have flexed his authority as head coach and insisted on re-establishing the running game, despite the fact that the MASH unit that is the offensive line seems ill-equipped to run-block. The other part of it is that ever since the Penn State game in late September, teams have realized that Haskins just doesn’t do well under pressure. So, many defenses are simply bringing more rushers than OSU has ability to block. That has a myriad of benefits for the defense.

First, it is one of the things that has limited Ohio State’s ability to run the ball, because there is literally a defender for every hole on the line. Second, it is forcing Haskins to get rid of the ball quickly. Now, normally, that’s not a huge problem, as he has shown tremendous ability to connect with receivers on quick timing plays either over the middle or in the flat. However, third is the fact that Haskins appears to be increasingly looking to avoid getting hit. I don’t know if that is because he’s gotten a bit gun-shy or not, but it’s not like he’s been hit that often. Ohio State is 14th nationally in sack rate.

The rumors around Columbus are that Haskins has decided to return to the Buckeyes next year, but just judging by how he’s been avoiding contact lately, I think it looks like he might be leaving for the NFL after (or maybe even before) the bowl game, and is doing whatever he can to avoid a catastrophic injury. Either way, the route to minimizing his effectiveness is by sending pressure, and mixing up the blitzes, so that he can’t get comfortable in the pocket.

TT: Name two other players (one on offense, one on defense) that Terps fans should really be watching out for.

LGHL: On offense, a lot will ride on the running backs, so I am going to subvert your question a little bit and go with Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins on offense. The two backs tend to rotate series, especially in the first half before they settle on whomever has the hot hand. Neither has had the type of season that many were expecting, but Dobbins went for 163 against Nebraska two weeks ago, and Weber became only the third back all season to top 100 yards against Michigan State’s defense last week; so they are beginning to see improvement. If they can establish a ground game where they are averaging 4-5 yards per carry, that should allow Haskins as much time as he needs in the pocket to distribute the ball.

As for the defensive part, I will stick to one guy, Jordan Fuller. The Ohio State secondary has been beaten up all season, and honestly struggled to replace all of the NFL talent that has departed in recent years. However, Fuller has been the consistent leader on the backend, and as the defensive coaches have begun to figure out a rotation that works (with Brendon White opposite Fuller and Shaun Wade as the Nickel safety), Fuller has been able to focus on shutting down the strong side of the field.

TT: How realistic are Ohio State’s College Football Playoff hopes, in your estimation?

LGHL: If I’m being honest, not very realistic. I currently find it hard to envision a scenario in which Ohio State beats Michigan in the regular season finale, so that would be obviously keep them out. But even if they were to win out, they will likely need some chaos in the Big XII, Washington State to lose, and then to hope that they can jump over a pair of two-loss SEC teams on the strength of a win over Michigan and a B1G title. I think that will be a tall order for a team with a 29-point loss to Purdue on their resume.

Obviously anything can happen in college football, but I think the cards are stacked against Ohio State in terms of the playoffs, whether they win out or not.

TT: What will have to happen for Maryland to pull off the upset?

LGHL: To get the win, the Terps will likely have to break some big plays on offense. Maryland’s done a pretty good job of that this season, but will probably need to hit three or four big plays against an improving Buckeye secondary. They will also need to make Ohio State one-dimensional on offense by bringing pressure as I mentioned before. Ohio State will probably be able to get points, but if Maryland can keep OSU from hitting big plays, and having to grind it out, that should go a long way.