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Ohio State needs its passing attack to avoid repeating history

The margin for error is razor thin.

Ohio State v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The agony of defeat seems to resonate more with college football coaches than the joy of victory. It’s a common trope in sports that the wins stick with you more than the losses.

For Urban Meyer, that seems to especially hold true with last year’s loss to Michigan State, in which the Buckeyes’ unimaginative offense stagnated, and a perfect season unraveled.

“We learned a lesson in a rain storm last year against Michigan State ... you can stop the run,” said a reflective Meyer last Monday.

You’re likely tired of thinking about that loss to the Spartans. Done asking yourself, how did they only pass for 46 yards. Done wondering why Ohio State’s quarterback carried the ball more than one of the greatest running backs in program history.

Yes, the pain from that cold, soggy evening last November might be best left as a fleeting memory. But there are lessons to be learned from last year’s lone loss, as well.

Meyer knows this. It’s why he hearkened back to a game that featured few players from this year’s team while while previewing his current squad’s bout with Indiana, speaking to the media before last weekend’s contest.

“We’re going to face some teams that can stop the run,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you give up on it, that means you have to be balanced and make them pay the price if they’re going to put everybody up there to stop the run.”

For that reason alone, Ohio State’s performance in the win against Indiana was more concerning than the 21-point margin indicated. For four quarters J.T. Barrett struggled to do much of anything in the passing game, completing just 9-of-21 attempts for a season-low 93 yards. In response the coaching staff relied on its hulking offensive line, and mushed its way to victory in a manner that would have made Woody Hayes proud.

That’s all well and good against a program like Indiana, which simply doesn’t recruit at a level to match Ohio State in size, speed, or depth in the trenches. But what happens when a team is ready and able to go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes, like the Spartans were a year ago?

The philosophy of Urban Meyer’s offense is quite simple; football is a numbers game. By using spread formations featuring a bevy of quick-twitch athletes, defenses are forced to guard the 53-yard width of the field, in addition to the length.

If the defense extends itself to combat Ohio State’s wide formations, Meyer will attack with power-run concepts. When the defense inevitably brings extra men into the box to over-aggressively respect the run, he counters with a deep strike off play action.

Under Meyer, Ohio State will always be known as a run-first team, but the offense operates at its best when it’s also able to take the top off of the defense with the deep ball. Devin Smith was an integral piece in the Buckeyes’ 2014 championship run, and his threat to roast defenses kept safeties back deep, which created room for Ezekiel Elliot as a rusher.

Noah Brown seemed to flash similar impact in his four-touchdown performance against Oklahoma, with three scores coming off of run fakes. He’s caught just three passes in the two games since.

That is not to place the Buckeyes’ passing problems in the hands of Brown. The 6’2 sophomore might be better suited for a possession style role, following the archetype of Michael Thomas.

Instead, the Buckeyes could look to Curtis Samuel, who has proven capable of blowing by opposing secondaries. Ohio State tried to find the junior H-back up the seam off a QB rocker step on the offense’s opening drive Saturday, but Barrett misfired short.

It was the first of several poorly thrown balls by Barrett, many of which would have resulted in long gains, if not touchdowns. As the Buckeyes proved incapable of beating Indiana through the air, the Hoosiers responded by aggressively selling out against the run. In consequence, freshman Mike Weber finished the day with 71 yards on 15 carries, his worst output of the young season.

Meyer responded to this predicament with an often-seen wrinkle, his favorite card to play in this numbers game. By using the quarterback as a runner, and the running back as a lead blocker, Ohio State can negate the defense’s numbers advantage when stacking the box. While Barrett struggled through the air he was excellent on the ground, rushing for 137 yards on 26 carries, both season highs.

The quarterback run has been a security blanket of sorts for Meyer throughout his entire coaching career. It’s an effective crutch, and one that Barrett executes as well as any quarterback in the country. But it has its drawbacks, too.

For one, the constant pounding increases the chance of injury for the team’s most important player. Through four years in Columbus, Meyer’s starting quarterbacks have never survived a full season unscathed. And unlike in 2014, when a seasoned team could support an inexperienced backup late in the season, J.T. Barrett is the engine that supports this youthful group.

Secondly, Ohio State’s offense can become too predictable when it relies excessively on the QB run. In the four games that Meyer has lost while leading the Buckeyes, the quarterback has led the team in carriers three times. In all four contests it felt as if the offense left points on the table, in part due to the coaches limiting the playbook in such a single-minded fashion.

Meyer defines offensive balance as rushing for 250 yards and passing for 250 yards, and Barrett has absolutely led such an attack during his time with the Scarlet and Grey. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he eclipsed the 250-yard barrier six times, and was more known for his distribution skills than his ability as a rusher. Since then he’s thrown for more than 250 yards just once, against lowly Bowling Green in the season opener. It’s fair to question how much the departure of Tom Herman as the Buckeyes’ play caller and quarterback’s coach has stunted Barrett’s progression the past two seasons.

Wisconsin might be one of the few programs in the country capable of containing Ohio State’s core competency. The Badgers rank fourth in the nation in rushing defense, and that’s after playing one of the best running backs in the country in LSU’s Leonard Fournette.

Head coach Paul Chryst will undoubtedly follow the blueprint that the Spartans and Hoosiers left behind; stack the box, neutralize Ohio State’s running back, and dare Barrett to win the game with his arm.

At the end of the day it might not matter. Much like with Indiana, Wisconsin doesn’t recruit at Ohio State’s level. Moreover, the Badgers have worse problems to deal with offensively, ranking 97th in passing, 78th in rushing, and 91st in points scored. Even if Barrett has a repeat performance as a below-average passer, the Buckeyes can likely run the ball, avoid turnovers and win the game behind its excellent defense and special teams.

That’s not the point. As Meyer said, the Buckeyes will have to beat someone this year with a balanced approach. Wisconsin might not be that team, and a trip to Camp Randall might not be the tipping point for the Ohio State aerial attack.

But the Badgers do provide an opportunity for Barrett and his receivers to build confidence against a quality opponent, proving capable of carrying at least half of the offense’s output.

If not, expect more conservative play calling and quarterback runs in big moments. And if history tells us anything, expect another painful loss at some point in return.