Ah, Maryland week. It’s a period of time that evokes thoughts like Why is Maryland in the Big Ten, or What in the name of everything holy are they wearing for uniforms this weekend, far more than the question of what Ohio State needs to do to win a ball game.
Ohio State’s offense, which has looked pedestrian at times this season, certainly won’t have to set the scoreboard on fire against Maryland this weekend. The Terrapins have beaten just one team with a winning record through nine games, and were absolutely bludgeoned by Michigan a week ago.
Still, after struggling for the better part of October on the offensive side of the ball, Ohio State’s attack finally found continuity in a 62-3 thumping of Nebraska last Saturday night.
Maryland might not represent a challenge for the Buckeyes, but it is an opportunity for the offense to continue its progression as we move closer to the all-important showdown with Michigan at the end of the month.
Against Wisconsin the Buckeye receivers had a miserable time gaining separation in coverage. Ohio State’s passing offense more or less amounted to J.T. Barrett buying extra time with his legs, extending plays until the defensive coverage finally broke down.
Barrett did not have the luxury to move around in the pocket the following week in Happy Valley, where the Buckeyes’ young offensive line deteriorated, as Penn State’s defense continued to suffocate Ohio State’s receivers.
Maybe the coaches lacked confidence in the offensive line to properly protect Barrett. Or maybe Barrett didn’t fully trust his receivers to truly cut the ball loose. Whatever the reason, the offensive game plan looked predictable and prehistoric against Northwestern, as Ohio State seldom broke tendency and completed just one pass of more than 20 yards in a narrow win.
So how was Ohio State able to turn things around so quickly, against the then 10th-ranked team in the country that boasted one of the better defenses in the conference?
For starters, the receivers finally found some space in the secondary, as Barrett dissected the Nebraska defense, spraying the ball to nine different receivers for 290 yards and four scores. It was the quarterback’s best output since the opener against Bowling Green, and his 75-yard touchdown strike to Curtis Samuel to open the second half was the team’s second longest play of the season.
“They’re coming into their own a little bit,” said Meyer on Monday while discussing his group of pass catchers. “That was their best game by far.”
Even in moments of missed opportunity, the receivers displayed explosiveness that had been missing for much of the Big Ten slate. Take Bin Victor, for example, who drew comparisons to A.J. Green during the TV broadcast, despite failing to complete an acrobatic catch in the end zone.
Meyer has raved about the rangy freshman from Florida, and it was telling that the coaches designed not one but two opportunities for Victor to haul in his first career touchdown catch in such a big game. It’s plausible that Meyer envisions a bigger role for Victor down the stretch run, and Maryland will provide another chance for the staff to further integrate this weapon into the offense.
Of course, the offensive line will need to keep Barrett upright for any of the receivers to thrive, and there may not be a position group on this team that has improved more since the Buckeyes’ lone loss. Against Penn State the offensive tackles looked like they were playing in skates, and Barrett was sacked a season-high six times. Nebraska failed to get to the quarterback once. It will be a positive sign if the line continues to enforce its will this weekend.
For all the improvement on the field, the offense’s quick turnaround can be equally attributed to the coaches’ ability to put their players in positions to succeed. Ohio State’s attack has been bogged down by predictable play calling as much as it was by a lack of execution, and that narrative seemed to shift against Nebraska.
An interesting development this year has been Ohio State’s inability to run jet sweeps and pop-passes, the bread-and-butter run plays for H-backs like Curtis Samuel in this offense. Meyer has attributed this to defenses keying in on the jet action, but the lack of those perimeter threats has allowed defenses to cheat against interior run plays.
It must have stunned Ohio State fans, let alone the Nebraska defense, when Barrett moved under center after initially showing a pistol formation on the offense’s second play of the game. Ohio State essentially never puts the quarterback under center, only doing it a handful of times during Meyer’s five years in Columbus, mostly to execute a QB sneak. By changing alignment and bringing the mesh point closer to the line of scrimmage, Samuel was able to hit the edge faster for a 16-yard gain.
It was thought that Ohio State would have to break tendency for its playmakers to truly thrive, but Meyer went a step further, briefly altering the offense’s identity in order to effectively use his most dynamic weapon. Two of Samuel’s five carries came off jet sweeps with the quarterback under center. On two other plays the offensive staff used misdirection; running a halfback counter to expose a defense over-pursuing the exterior run, and then directly snapping the ball to the junior H-back after Barrett quickly motioned away from the play.
Simply getting the ball in Samuel’s hands more was an obvious remedy to Ohio State’s problems offensively, and it will be interesting to see how Meyer balances finding new ways to feature the speedster from Brooklyn, verses keeping some tricks up his sleeve exclusively for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.
There’s a saying in journalism that three is a trend. If something happens once, it can be written off as a fluke. Twice can be considered a curious coincidence. But when something repeats itself three times, you have a statistically significant pattern on your hands.
That’s why it was so concerning to see Ohio State struggle offensively, not just a couple of times on the road, but for three consecutive weeks against less talented opponents.
Last week’s performance was a step in the right direction. If the receivers, offensive line and play calling continue to thrive against Maryland, and then the weekend after at Michigan State, then the offense will be trending in the right direction heading into the finale with Michigan.
And that’s what we’re really looking for out of the Buckeyes during these next two games, as we inch closer toward the crescendo of the season, a date we’ve been circling since before the year began.