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Ohio State improves its passing game for stretch run

Khris Hale/Icon Sportswire

Ohio State is barreling towards its Nov. 26 showdown with rival Michigan. Much to the relief of head coach Urban Meyer, it’s doing so with an improving passing game.

After being upset at Penn State on Oct. 22, the Buckeyes have rebounded with victories against Northwestern and Nebraska. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has begun clicking with his receivers. The offensive line has improved its protection.

The Nittany Lions sacked Barrett six times and prevented him from hitting big plays down the field. Running backs Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber along with tight end Marcus Baugh were the three leading receivers in a 24-21 loss.

Locked in a 17-17 tie with Northwestern early in the fourth quarter, Ohio State needed someone to step up at wide receiver. K.J. Hill became that guy. The freshman from Arkansas hauled in an impressed 34-yard sideline catch from Barrett to set up the winning score.

The play by Hill seemed to kick start the aerial attack. Saturday, Barrett completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns in a 62-3 demolition of then No. 10 Nebraska.

Hill followed up his heroics against Northwestern with five catches for 66 yards versus the Huskers. His emergence has served as a catalyst.

“I think that was a game changer (against Northwestern), and he’s a really good player. He’s earning more and more playing time,” Urban Meyer told reporters in Columbus on Monday.

“He’s a very reliable guy, good blocker, always in the right place, very good hands. He’s one of those guys you can see, like Noah Brown), reaches out and is a ball catcher and hand catcher.

“It sparks, energizes the group, and it certainly has. I think we’ve thrown for 550 yards in the last two games or something or 530 or whatever. So there’s been a little bit of a spark.”

It’s actually been 575 yards passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions over the last two games. Samuel, who lines up in the backfield, slot and wide, has collected 15 receptions for 205 yards and a pair of scores.

The line has done its job as well. After giving up the six sacks (and 11 tackles for loss) against Penn State, the unit has yielded just one total during the last two contests.

“They played really well the last two weeks,” Meyer said.

Meyer said he and his staff didn’t change anything schematically to aid the front.

“It’s just you get what you emphasize and a lot of emphasis on pass pro. Their pass pro Saturday was outstanding. And so just a lot of emphasis on that right now,” the coach said.

Speculation surfaced when the passing game struggled that star safety Malik Hooker might get a look on offense. Meyer toyed with fans’ imaginations on Monday.

“I think every time I watch him I’m going to flip him over on offense and pitch it to him a couple of times,” he said.

Later in the press conference, the coach shot down their dreams of seeing Hooker going both ways.

“We do have good skilled players that are developing on offense, so it’s not really…he’s so valuable back there (on defense) right now,” Meyer said. “So we have thought about it. But then you look around and there’s other good ones there, too. So you’re disrupting things.”

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