This is not the way this season was supposed to start.
I mean, Ohio State is 3-0, so sure, that part has played out according to script, but almost nothing else has. Some bit of struggles on offense against Virginia Tech, a team that still projects to have an elite unit, were expected. But Ohio State's offense has also sputtered against Hawaii, who may not even be a Top 100 team this season, and Northern Illinois, who gave up 30 points to UNLV and 26 to Murray State the week before. Ohio State mustered only 13 offensive points against the Huskies, and while an elite defense saved the day, fans are concerned.
As well they should be. Given Ohio State's speed, their experience along the offensive line, talent at every offensive position and depth and multiple options seemingly everywhere, nobody expected Ohio State's offense to be struggling. And if they continue, it's not hard to see Ohio State's dream of returning to the playoff, or even winning the Big Ten East, falling apart.
You can't check Twitter or Facebook without reading a hundred opinions about what's wrong. What's the truth? Let's try to separate fact from fiction a little bit here.
Ohio State's offense actually has a problem: Fact
Virtually everybody, no matter how talented, is going to have a bad game once in a while, and if say, the Hawaii, or even the NIU game, happened in a vacuum, we could shrug and talk about short weeks, or not wanting to get up for a 35 point spread, or whatever. But the regular season is now 25% over, and we've seen enough similarities in the first three games to be concerned.
By many measures, Ohio State's offense was very successful against Virginia Tech. After all, they put up 42 points and 572 yards, on the road, against what is considered to be a very good defense. But that showing also masked a few problems. Ohio State still turned the ball over three times, and by my count, ran exactly two snaps in Virginia Tech's red zone, and struggled when they needed to string together long, consistent drives. Of course, when you get scoring plays from 80, 54 and 53 yards out, you don't really need to be that efficient. Nobody cares how you score 42 points, if you actually score 42 points.
The trouble is, despite purportedly having the personnel to do so, Ohio State hasn't been explosive since. Ohio State's longest offensive play against Northern Illinois came early in the first quarter, a 25-yard pass to Michael Thomas, a drive that ultimately produced a field goal. Against Hawaii, Ohio State had a 24-yard run from Cardale Jones on their very first play, and then recorded only one other play of more than 20 yards for the rest of the game.
You can win games without explosive plays, but that's very hard, and requires efficiency (staying out of third-and-long), and winning the turnover battle. That hasn't happened.
Ohio State needs to pick a quarterback: Probably Fact
Ohio State being unable to string together any explosive plays or many long drives is a surprise, and part of that is because quarterback play has not been nearly as strong as expected. Cardale Jones got nearly all of the snaps against Virginia Tech, and was solid, even if he wasn't especially efficient (10/19 passing, 187 yards, 2 scores and a pick, while running for 99 more yards), but after struggling a bit with execution and decision-making, he got a quick hook in the Hawaii game, and was benched for most of the Northern Illinois game after throwing two interceptions.
J.T. Barrett has looked like he's regressed from last year as well. He hasn't shown the accuracy displayed from last year, even on completions, which has robbed Buckeye wideouts of possible yards after the catch. Barrett couldn't get to 100 yards passing despite throwing 19 passes against Northern Illinois, throwing a pick and nearly throwing another. Neither QB has had much success going downfield over the last two games, and it sure seems like neither of them are playing with much confidence. Throw in the snaps that Braxton Miller gets in Wildcat-like formations, and it seems to be tough for anybody to get into much of a rhythm.
That's not uncommon for teams that have to regularly employ a two-QB system. I can understand why Ohio State made the decisions they've made with the QB battle so far, but trying to give both a lot of time, or having a quick hook when one struggles, isn't a way to build consistency. Ohio State should name a quarterback, start him, and stick with him. I personally think J.T. Barrett is a better college quarterback and can do more with Ohio State's offense, but if everybody else plays to their potential, Ohio State can win every game with Cardale Jones, too. Who the guy is isn't as important as whether there is a guy. Not nailing this down now could cause even more problems down the road, both on the field, and in the locker room.
Ohio State can't just replace coaches and pretend like nothing happened: Fact
It would be revisionist history to say that Tom Herman's playcalling was universally adored while he was at Ohio State (even in the LGHL newsroom, if we're being honest), but we can't argue with the final results. Now, he's off to his well deserved first head coaching gig at Houston, and is doing very well. Stan Drayton left for the Chicago Bears, and Ohio State brought on Tony Alford, Tim Beck, and shuffled responsibilities for Ed Warinner. Warinner had established himself as one of the finest offensive line coaches in the country, and Alford and Beck had both been successful elsewhere, so given Ohio State's returning talent level, nobody thought too much about a offensive production drop-off.
Turns out, replacing really good assistant coaches instantly is really hard. Urban Meyer has been fairly successful at it, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a learning curve, or that every decision has always been perfect (check out what happened at the end of his Florida tenure). This isn't to say that Beck, Alford and Warinner won't ultimately be very successful at Ohio State, just that right now, Ohio State is missing that continuity on offense.
Last year, Virginia Tech threw a "Bear" front defense that the Buckeyes were not completely prepared for, and they struggled mightily. Right now, it seems the unit hasn't quite figured out how to crack odd-man fronts, which has taken away a lot of what Ohio State wants to do with their interior power running attack. Via Cleveland.com, here's starting left tackle Taylor Decker on why that's been a struggle, especially against NIU:
"You prepare for one defense and they come on another one," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "Obviously everybody is going to play odd against us now, we've showed that we struggle against it. And that kind of takes away our double teams, which is what we like to do and run the ball up the middle. It creates problems for us and we just have to iron out those wrinkles."
Ohio State was able to figure out the Bear, and when teams with even better personnel throw it at Ohio State later in the season, like Michigan State, they were ready. Ohio State will probably figure out the odd-man too, but that may take time, and that slowness could be partly because Ohio State is breaking in a few new faces in the coaching rooms.
Ohio State's offensive problems are systemic and unfixable: False
Ohio State is probably missing Noah Brown right now, but injuries aren't really the big reason for the struggles. Ohio State is missing the deep ball threat of Devin Smith, one that hasn't really been replaced on this team so far. But throwing deep requires strong pass-blocking (which has been hit or miss so far), and given the options Ohio State has at wideout, the odds are still good that somebody from this group will emerge this season. Ohio State's schedule is still manageable over the next few weeks, so they may not need to play a perfect game to stay in playoff contention.
There aren't signs that Ohio State's attitude is poor, or that the players haven't worked hard enough. Any signs of complacency ostensibly would have been stomped out, and there aren't even whispers of locker room discontent at the moment. The concerns seem at least in part schematic, a place where Ohio State has earned the benefit of the doubt, and with confidence and execution. Those are not insignificant problems, but they are fixable.
Ohio State's offense is going to need to score more than 13 points to beat Western Michigan or Indiana -- to say nothing of Michigan and Michigan State -- but Ohio State has the parts to get there. The issues are real, but unmitigated fire-everyone panic isn't remotely justified.
And for what it's worth, Ohio State is still undefeated. For as much as the last two games have been frustrating and unfulfilling, it's still way better to win those games than lose them. Just ask Arkansas.