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It's not 'deep ball or bust' for Ohio State's passing game

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NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a palpable tension surrounding the Ohio State football program at the moment.

You can feel it in the press room, where a more prickly-than-usual Urban Meyer stands on edge, dutifully answering questions from a flock of reporters-turned-armchair quarterbacks.

“I think it’s my fifteenth year as a head coach,” he says Saturday after a 24-20 gritty but ugly win over Northwestern, cutting off one reporter before he can finish asking why Ohio State continues to struggle offensively, and whether Meyer thinks the media is overly critical of his 7-1 team.

“What goes on in here, the questions, I’m good.”

You can feel it among the fans, though it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Entering the season, expectations were of the cautiously optimistic variety, and growing pains were expected for college football’s youngest team. That perspective shifted drastically after the Buckeyes smashed Oklahoma, placing another run for a national championship in the forecast.

The fact that struggling Ohio State opened as 16.5-point favorites against No. 9 Nebraska speaks to the dissonance between Vegas and Buckeye Nation. The Kool-Aid they’re serving from the fountain of optimism at those sportsbooks is clearly not being shared with the local OSU watering holes.

The root cause of all of this is the tension you can feel on the field, where opponents are quite literally squeezing the Ohio State offense.

By November of the college football season, there are very few secrets. We know Alabama’s defense is dominant. Like, historically dominant. We know that Lamar Jackson is electrifying.

And of course, we know that Ohio State has struggled in the vertical passing game. Ideally, Meyer would like to see his Buckeyes split a 500-yard performance evenly between passing and rushing. The Buckeyes aren’t far off, averaging 220 passing yards per game, albeit ranking 77th in the country in that department.

What’s more telling is how J.T. Barrett and the passing attack manages those yards. The Buckeyes rank a paltry 97th in country in yards per completion, a spot or two ahead of outfits like Northern Illinois and Purdue. Not exactly elite company.

For most of this season, the Ohio State aerial attack has followed a theme of death by a thousand cuts. The Buckeyes rarely push the down ball down the field, electing instead to swing short, quick passes along the perimeter. When Meyer finally does dial up a long passing play, however infrequent that might be, Barrett and his pass-catchers have seldom been on the same page.

That’s all well and good against the Bowling Green’s or even Oklahoma’s of the world, opponents that didn’t have either the athletes or execution to contain Ohio State’s core competencies.

But the Big 10 schedule has required more out of the Ohio State attack. Wisconsin and Penn State were granted bye weeks leading into their battle with the Buckeyes, extra time to home in on the offense’s most obvious tendencies. And while Indiana and Northwestern faced a significant talent deficit, this wasn’t their first rodeo against the Meyer-led Scarlet and Grey. The repeating nature of conference play allows for schematic familiarity.

In his fifth trip through the conference slate, it’s possible that these common opponents are catching up to Meyer’s offensive philosophy. Michigan State, the only team to beat Meyer’s Buckeyes twice, has succeeded by stifling the interior run and playing press coverage on Ohio State’s receivers, forcing them to win the game over the top. This blueprint has been adopted by several teams this season, most notably Penn State in its upset win two weeks ago.

Meyer’s offense is at its best when there’s synergy between the power run and deep passing game. In 2014, Ohio State found a perfect balance, mushing with Ezekiel Elliott and then exposing over-aggressive safeties by sending Devin Smith deep. During that championship run, the Buckeyes ranked 17th in the country in yards per completion, and 7th in yards per attempt.

For the past two years Meyer has searched for a replacement for Smith to little avail. The Ohio State receiving corps is littered with a collection of converted running backs and athletes learning to play the position who have trouble gaining separation from press coverage. Barrett’s mechanics and arm strength leaves something to be desired, as well.

As a result, safeties are playing closer to the box, and defenders are attacking ball carriers like heat-seeking missiles at the first site of a run play or swing pass. If Barrett and the receivers cannot deliver on traditional deep throws to keep the defense honest, then it’s up to Meyer and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to manufacture chunk plays in the passing game through other creative ways.

The offensive staff showed the ability to do just that during the most critical moments of last weekend’s contest with Northwestern. One of Ohio State’s favorite plays is the inverted veer, a run that calls for Barrett to ride the mesh point horizontally while reading the defensive line, eventually handing the ball off for an outside run, or keeping it himself for a gash up the middle. The play works well when there is a numbers advantage in the box, but is largely ineffective when safeties come short in run support.

Locked in a tie game midway through the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes finally dialed up a counter to the way Northwestern was defending the veer. Watch how the Wildcats’ boundary linebacker sells out to contain the perimeter at the first site of the commonly seen concept, while receiver K.J. Hill releases to the vacated spot on a wheel route. The ball only traveled a few yards through the air, but Hill was so open that he was able to scamper for 34 yards, easily Ohio State’s longest passing play of the day.

Earlier in the season, Ohio State attempted to expose Oklahoma’s aggression in a similar fashion. The Buckeyes threw a quick screen to James Clark on two of three plays, and then immediately tried to run a fake off that action, releasing the would-be blockers on wheel routes behind the screen. It felt heavy-handed, and Oklahoma was able to recover in the secondary. But the staff still showed more creativity in that design than they have for much of this season.

Aside from a few examples, Ohio State’s offense has been brutally predictable during the Big Ten slate. It’s come to the point that even the most unobservant fans can correctly predict a quarterback run when the Buckeyes line up in an empty set on third-and-short. You can bet the house the defense is expecting Ohio State’s bread and butter plays as well.

Against a Nebraska defense that ranks 15th in the country in points allowed per game, Ohio State’s best bet is for Meyer and Warinner to lure the defense in with familiar sets, and then expose over-aggression with counters. These play designs should keep the Cornhusker defense honest, and will ultimately relieve the tension applied to Ohio State’s stretch run and quick pass game.

Only then will the tension that surrounds the rest of the program recede as well.