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Ohio State’s conservative play-calling is a problem

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Look no further than the Michigan State game to see why.

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The narrator of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses asks and answers an existential question that feels all-too-familiar for fans of the Ohio State football program.

What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.

The ghost of the Buckeyes’ recent past looks an awful lot like Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger running the length of the field with his arms pinwheeling, a 17-14 final score looming large on the scoreboard of Ohio Stadium.

It wasn’t pretty, but on Saturday afternoon, the Buckeyes turned on the light and dissolved this most odious of specters, walking off the field in East Lansing 17-16 victors. Granted, this is hardly the Michigan State of years past. But Mark Dantonio’s particular brand of football has been Urban Meyer’s Achilles heel for years now, and it just wouldn’t have felt right if the margin had been any less razor-thin.

Look, the Ohio State coaching staff takes a lot of heat #online. The reversion to ultra-conservative, predictable football has been so fast in so many games this season, pretty much any time a team has hung with the Buckeyes for a full half. We saw it (to a degree) against Wisconsin. We saw it big time against Penn State, and again in an ugly win over Northwestern.

This particular iteration of the vanilla ice cream cone offense felt particularly un-decadent, given how bad Michigan State has been all season. Yes, weather and wind were an issue. Yes, J.T. Barrett’s downfield passing attempts—when they were called for—were perhaps less-than inspiring. But there’s no getting around the fact that the Buckeyes, scorers of 124 points in the last two weeks, got dragged down into a rock fight against a defense missing its best player. This happened because at the first sign of trouble, the offense’s game plan devolved into a crudely-drawn picture of a turtle inside its shell.

It’s not all gloom and doom, despite all this. Let’s pass out some accolades to the guys who showed up and made a difference.

Blue chip stocks

Cameron Johnston, P: Even the Buckeyes’ stalwart punter wasn’t able to completely avoid the mistakes that plagued the whole team on Saturday, as his most important boot of the game ended up going for a touchback at the worst possible time. But the ball being placed at the 20 probably seemed worse than it normally would given Johnston’s body of work the rest of the game.

The Aussie punted seven times for 291 yards, landing three of those inside the 20 (and one inside the five). That’s a damn impressive performance for a guy who didn’t even get to take the field in the Nebraska game two weeks ago; he was a vital part of the effort that completely stifled the Spartan offense on Saturday.

Chris Worley, LB: The Buckeye outside linebacker had himself a day against MSU. Worley finished the game with seven total tackles, including one for a loss. He also single-handedly killed a Spartan drive with a ridiculously athletic interception in the second quarter. No. 35 is as capable as the Buckeyes could possibly hope for. Who knows what the final score of this one would’ve looked like without him?

Mike Weber, RB: The Cass Tech’s product fumbled in the second quarter; otherwise, his day was mistake-free. He went for 111 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries; that total put him over 1,000 yards on the season. He’s the third consecutive feature back to hit the 1K mark under Meyer, following in the footsteps of Ezekiel Elliott and Carlos Hyde. (Speaking of Ezekiel Elliott, do you think Weber and Curtis Samuel should’ve gotten more touches in this one? I’ll hang up and listen.)

Solid investments

The Rushmen package: When opposing teams are forced into obvious third-down passing situations, the Buckeye defense likes to bring in the big guns along the front line. When all four starting-caliber defensive ends—Jalyn Holmes, Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Nick Bosa—are on the field at the same time, other teams get into trouble.

These four Buckeyes all earned their keep on Saturday, contributing to a defensive effort that saw Sparty go just 3-12 on third downs. From the Rushmen package, Ohio State was able to effectively harangue Tyler O’Connor; even when the Buckeyes were in their more traditional look, the same names gave Michigan State a problem. In a game when the run defense looked so lost so often, it was great to see the Buckeyes clamp down on the passing attack. Big ups especially to Tyquan Lewis for his final-drive strip sack, and Jalyn Holmes for returning to the game in a big way after being sidelined with an injury.

Junk bonds

The designed QB run: It’s not like J.T. Barrett can actually be called junk. He’s helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship, he’s proven himself more than capable of picking defenses apart, and he’s one of the more slippery runners at any position in college football. Dude can flat out play.

But it took him 24 carries to breach the 100-yard mark on the ground on Saturday. Again and again, the play call came in either as a designed run for Barrett or an option look that Barrett often kept for himself. This is the boring, conservative football discussed above. Without Malik McDowell, Michigan State was still able to stifle this method of attack time after time.

There is no Cardale Jones on the sideline to take over if Barrett—already the victim of one season-ending injury in his career—falls down the wrong way on one of his umpteen carries. Or if the wear and tear from taking so many punishing hits on these keepers finally takes its toll and Barrett can’t keep going. To see Urban Meyer walk into his garage, bypass the Ferrari and the Lambo, and instead drive his Dodge Neon into the wall 20 times is an exercise in frustration.

Buy/Sell

BUY: Ohio State’s playoff chances. It was hardly the kind of win to inspire the committee, but Michigan State’s defensive stoutness did inspire a little bit of hope that the Spartans can take down Penn State next weekend. If that happens, all the Buckeyes need to do is beat Michigan to walk into Indianapolis to take on an opponent they’ve already beaten once. (Given Michigan’s recent struggles against Iowa and Indiana, this doesn’t seem out of reach!)

SELL: Wet Urban Meyer. We bought up tons of this stock early in the season, when Urban Meyer In The Rain looked like the most powerful force in college football. Saturday’s game put that notion to rest. RIP.

BUY: SB Nation’s advanced stats guys. By the advanced metrics, it’s been clear all season that Ohio State doesn’t give up tons of big plays, but when they do, they’re backbreakers. (See: IsoPPP here.) Paging Mr. LJ Scott.