There was no New Year’s celebration for Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes. Instead, the coach rang in 2017 with the worst loss of his coaching career, one that should have lasting implications on the Ohio State program moving forward.
After the clock struck midnight on Ohio State’s season, Meyer spent the final moments of 2016 hollowly answering questions from reporters. Most questions centered around the present — how the Buckeyes could look so vastly outmatched in a 31-0 shellacking at the hands of Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinal after having a month to prepare. Meyer preferred to direct his attention to the future.
“We will become a good passing team, we will,” he declared, in a New Year’s resolution of sorts. “Next year.”
As with many New Year’s resolutions, Meyer’s was a reiteration of a failed promise from the year before. Just twelve months ago, Meyer sat a podium in the same stadium, declaring that in 2016 the Buckeyes would excel as a passing offense. The message came amidst a much more celebratory affair – the Buckeyes had just beaten Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off a 12-1 campaign. But still, the result was accompanied by a strong sense of what could have been. Had the Buckeyes been a more balanced offense that season, they likely would have been playing for much more than a consolation prize.
Looking back, it’s astonishing that the 2015 team didn’t accomplish more. That offense featured Ezekiel Elliot, who might be the NFL’s MVP this season, let alone the rookie of the year. Receiver Michael Thomas, who was selected in the second round, has outperformed all four of his first-round counterparts. Taylor Decker has lived up to his first-round billing as Detroit’s left tackle. Several other Buckeyes are thriving in their first season as pros.
Still, Ohio State’s NFL-ready offense struggled throughout that season against a fairly easy schedule, and completely fell apart against Michigan State in a 17-14 loss. Elliott famously criticized the offensive brain trust afterward. Last night, multiple former Buckeyes who once shared the field with Elliott echoed similar thoughts as they watched Ohio State implode on a national stage.
“Play calling was such trash tonight…,” tweeted Darron Lee, a linebacker and team leader on the 2014 and 2015 Ohio State teams. “I’m being nice,” he added. “It was trash last year too.”
Play calling was such trash tonight...— Darron Lee (@DLeeMG8) January 1, 2017
I'm being nice. It was trash last year too https://t.co/hOU2uzFpKM— Darron Lee (@DLeeMG8) January 1, 2017
Lee has the leeway to make these comments and not get roasted by the media as Elliott did, now that he’s no longer a part of the team. But if that’s how he feels — and how he felt last year — it’s likely that similar thoughts permeate through the Buckeyes’ locker room.
Tim Beck’s comments after the game were just as telling. His New Year’s resolution for the offense? “We’ve got to create an identity of what we want to be.”
Beck came to Columbus in 2015 to fill the large shoes of Tom Herman as the team’s quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Since arriving he has been much maligned by Buckeye Nation. Under Beck’s tutelage, J.T. Barrett has regressed from winning Big Ten Quarterback of the Year as a freshman in 2014, to a sloppy and indecisive thrower. Barrett will likely break every Ohio State record as a quarterback next season. Many who follow the program aren’t convinced that his return is a positive for the offense.
For two years, Barrett’s regression has been the most obvious knock against Beck. That the offense is still searching for an identity under his leadership is now the most damning fact to date.
At its highest aspiration, Ohio State’s offense should look much like the one Clemson deployed Saturday night. Everything the Tigers did seemingly had purpose; the bevy of bubble screens set up wide-open wheel routes on the back end, and the wheel routes gave room for Deshaun Watson to gash the interior on quarterback draws. Even when the Tigers failed, they failed attempting to execute a well thought-out game plan.
This was juxtaposed by Ohio State’s offense, which looked as if the coaches were playing a game of Madden, selecting the Ask Coach function, and picking plays at random. Every play call came off as an isolated incident, lacking continuity and creativity at the same time. Clemson’s safeties lived within the box, daring Barrett to beat the defense deep, and yet the Buckeyes never tested the Tigers’ secondary until the game was well out of hand. Instead, Ohio State seemed hell-bent on running and throwing east-to-west, curiously abandoning its’ strong power-run game from the start.
Tailback Mike Weber was much more diplomatic than Elliott was after last year’s offensive debacle, though he had every right to similarly rip the play calling in his post game comments. The Big Ten’s freshman of the year rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, only the third first-year in Ohio State history to achieve that feat. And yet, he carried the ball only five times, and just once in the first half.
As his teammates packed their bags and slammed lockers in frustration, Weber admitted to reporters that he expected the ball more against Clemson, while indicating that the Buckeyes’ struggles were very much a function of questionable play calling.
“They had a pretty good defensive line,” he said of Clemson. “But other than that … I feel like we faced better defenses than that this year. We just didn’t respond.”
Clemson is a great team, one that has a very real opportunity to defeat Alabama in the upcoming rematch for a national title. But last night’s debacle was less about the Tigers’ defensive prowess, and more about 24 months of Ohio State’s systemic offensive deficiencies being unearthed in 60 minutes of football.
In Meyer’s first two seasons as a coach for the Buckeyes, the team succeeded in spite of a defense that was atrocious in scheme and execution. Still, when Ohio State’s offense carried those teams to a 24-0 start, it was difficult to call for a sudden change. The tipping point was when the defense collapsed against Michigan State in the Big Ten Title Game, and then against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash to lead the defense in place of Everett Withers, who left for a lower-level head coaching gig, likely at Meyer’s behest. Ash installed rugby-style tackling and an aggressive quarters coverage scheme, and the Buckeyes have fielded a championship-level defense ever since.
Meyer indicated that the offense now is in a similar place to where the defense was in 2013. If so, every member of the offensive staff should be evaluated in the coming weeks. Beck is an easy scapegoat for the team’s failures, but he is not alone in the blame. Ed Warinner was a fantastic offensive line coach from 2012-2014, but he’s looked out of his element as a co-offensive coordinator and Beck’s partner ever since. The man now coaching the team’s blockers, Greg Studwara, fielded one of the team’s weakest units in his first year on the staff.
If the offensive line wasn’t Ohio State’s weakest unit this season, then it was probably the wide receivers. All year position coach Zach Smith rotated as many as 10 different players in three starting spots, and yet none emerged as a reliable top option. Against Clemson the best in the group appeared to be a true freshman in Binjimen Victor, who entered the contest with just three catches and a handful of meaningful snaps. His increased usage on the biggest stage illustrated Smith’s failure in both developing his veteran options, and preparing his younger talents with opportunities earlier in the year.
Ohio State is currently on pace to land one of the greatest recruiting classes in the history of the sport, and that’s a factor Meyer will have to consider as he evaluates his staff with national signing day just over a month away. Smith is best known for his brash and immature antics on Twitter, but he resonates with recruits. Trevon Grimes and Tyjon Lindsay, the No. 5 and No. 6 WR recruits per 247Sports, are both committed to be Buckeyes next fall. Beck might not be suited to coach quarterbacks, but he has been instrumental in recruiting Texas. There is a very real possibility that Ohio State walks away with three of the top six prospects in the most fertile state for high school talent – a rare feat for a program located in the Midwest.
Still, Ohio State wasn’t wanting for elite talent against Clemson on New Years Eve. Most prognosticators considered the teams evenly matched, and predicted a close contest. The game was anything but that because the coaches failed to properly utilize the talent that they had at hand.
If this season taught us anything, it’s that competing for championships will always be expected while Meyer is coaching the Buckeyes, regardless of attrition. In reality, this year’s team overachieved by even making the playoffs with the youngest roster in college football, while replacing so many elite NFL talents. What’s disappointing is not that Ohio State failed to complete a run for a national title, it’s that the offense failed to even compete in the semifinal game.
“Our anticipation is to get back here next year and take a good swing at it,” said Meyer.
If Meyer is to make good on that New Year’s resolution, he first needs to make good on his promise from last year by fixing the passing game. To do that, he must enter the new year with a fresh approach to the offensive strategy, likely with some new faces involved.