A healthy, confident CJ Stroud has Ryan Day's offensive, who puts up big numbers.

Editor’s Note: After every Ohio State soccer game, Beat reporters Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman discuss ongoing storylines and other key developments.

Ohio State is in the middle of the regular season after an easy 66-17 win against Maryland on Saturday. The Buckeyes had a bumpy start to the season but have now prevailed despite not facing top competition.

That will change soon after Ohio State is idle this weekend. The second half of Ohio State’s schedule will determine whether the Buckeyes are truly a championship-caliber team.

Rabinowitz: Coach Ryan Day said in his post-game press conference that Ohio State are a very different team from the one that played against Minnesota and Oregon. It would be hard to argue with him. Redshirt newcomer quarterback CJ Stroud is getting more and more comfortable. It helps to have the cast around him that he does. It’s really hard to find a weakness in this offensive. The defense isn’t up to the offense level, but it’s improving too.

Merchant: The Buckeyes carved out the kinks at just the right time as the second half of the season turns into a gauntlet. Three of their last six opponents are in the top 10 in the latest Associated Press poll, with Penn State in 7th place, Michigan in 8th place and Michigan State in 10th place. Then, when Ohio State hits the Big Ten championship, game waits for potential matchup with Iowa. The Hawkeyes are in second place. Grab some popcorn.

Rabinowitz: That cuts both ways. Yes, it’s a difficult path, but if the Buckeyes win it will be terribly difficult to keep them out of the college football playoff. As impressive as these Big Ten rivals have been, none of them should scare the state of Ohio. The Buckeyes are more talented than any of them and are likely to be preferred every week I think.

Merchant: Agree. To reach the playoff, the Buckeyes need a few wins that can improve their resume. At this point, your best win is … Minnesota? Or Rutgers? Most of the popular computer rankings don’t even have both in their top 50, but they’re higher than Akron, Maryland, or Tulsa. The really happy part for Ohio State is that the schedule has left some breathing space over the past few weeks, an opportunity to make some much-needed adjustments before facing these high-level division enemies.

Rabinowitz: At the start of the season, it looked like OSU’s next opponent – Indiana – might be the toughest they’d face in the second half of the season. Now the Hoosiers might be some of the simplest. Not that IU can’t challenge the Buckeyes. Indiana usually does. But imagine the odds you could have had in Vegas if both Michigan State and Michigan were undefeated for this long. Penn State still presents the greatest challenge when quarterback Sean Clifford is healthy.

Ohio State's Ryan Watts, 16, and Kourt Williams will face Peny Boone in Maryland on Saturday.  The Buckeyes defense improves after a shaky start.

Merchant: I think I was skeptical about Indiana. It felt like the Hoosiers caught lightning in a bottle during a pandemic cut season in 2020 and had questions with the quarterback. While Michael Penix Jr. is undoubtedly talented, he hasn’t proven himself durable enough in 12 games. Each of his last three seasons have ended prematurely due to injury and now he suffers from a shoulder injury week after week. Tom Allen’s program gave the Buckeyes a real game in Columbus last October due to Penix’s arm. It might require similar performance if he can recover in time.

Rabinowitz: We may get more into that next week, but when Penix can’t play, IU has a capable reinforcement in Jack Tuttle, Chris Olave’s high school teammate. I would like to go into a little more about Stroud’s performance. I was impressed with how unimpressed he was. Nothing really seems to bother him. Part of it comes from the convenience of having the players around you, which he does. But he just seems like a confident guy. This is crucial for a quarterback.

Merchant: Stroud showed a calm demeanor from the start. He tackled a tough road environment on his first start in Minnesota, holding the Buckeyes tight in the Oregon loss and battling shoulder pain against Tulsa. After resting his right throwing shoulder for a week, he found his crotch. I think Day’s readiness to play since his return has really helped by giving him some shorter throws and allowing him to get the ball out of his hands quickly. According to Pro Football Focus, his average target depth at Rutgers dropped to a season low of 7.9 yards. It then shot to a season high of 14.3 yards against Maryland as he hit some of the deeper balls. The game plan gave Stroud a chance to relax again.

Defensive end Jack Sawyer and the Buckeyes have 19 sacks for the season which are ranked 11th on the FBS.

Rabinowitz: When the offense clicks, the key to the Buckeyes’ season is how much their defense can improve. Certainly there are some parts. The defensive line puts more pressure on the quarterbacks and was usually strong against the run. Senior Marcus Williamson has given secondary school a boost after being rarely used early on. Freshman cornerback Denzel Burke was a revelation. If Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown get and stay healthy, Ohio State will be on track to make the improvements needed.

Soccer in the state of Ohio:Kerry Coombs receives cue ball after Buckeyes defeat Maryland

Merchant: A week off will be important for other ailing players, such as defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who hobbled off the field in the third quarter on Saturday with an apparent leg injury. He didn’t put any weight on his right leg as he went to the sidelines. Day didn’t go into details but said it was an injury he is struggling with. Garrett is a critical element of that line of defense and part of the reason the Buckeyes have come under as much pressure as they have in the past few weeks. They are up to 19 sacks for the season, despite a slow start at number 11 on the FBS. There is certainly a youth movement on the roster, but veterans are needed to handle the tremendous run.

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