The common thought among Ohio State fans heading into Saturday’s matchup with Purdue was that, while Purdue can score on Ohio State’s struggling defense, Ohio State would be able to win a shootout. We found out the hard way how far from the truth that was. While Ohio State’s defensive issues are probably more pressing than those of the offense, the offense should not escape criticism for that performance.
Before we do that though, I think it’s important to get to the bottom of why fans, and perhaps the Buckeye staff, assumed Ohio State would be able to win a shootout. The reasoning is pretty simple, and honestly, to this point in the season, there weren’t any glaring signs to the contrary. Before the game in West Lafayette, when things had gotten tough, Ohio State had been able to lean on an extremely experienced receiver group, and an excellent quarterback.
Both Haskins and his receivers were still great against Purdue, to the point where they broke some school passing records. But, as anyone who watched that game would know, Haskins’ 470 yards were like empty calories. They came on 73 attempts, and led to only 20 points. Ohio State’s air raid experiment ended with a 29 point loss, and a 2/5 TD rate in the red zone. I’d say that we should’ve seen this coming, given how poorly Ohio State’s running attack had been recently, but I can’t, because you never see a 29-point loss to Purdue coming.
However, with the gift of hindsight, we can look back at Ohio State’s first seven games to figure out what happened in the eighth. We can see that Ohio State’s rushing attack has steadily decreased almost every week this season, at least in terms of yards per carry.
Ohio State yards per carry
Those numbers are, well, not encouraging. Ohio State is averaging 3.26 yards per carry in the past five games, and 3.59 against Big Ten foes. Take out Rutgers — like Jim Delaney should’ve done years ago — and that number sinks to 3.08. By comparison, Ohio State averaged 5.74 yards per carry in the first three games of the season. Everyone knows what changed after those first three games, specifically at the head coaching position, and in an attempt to avoid any angry emails, I won’t dwell on that too much. Instead, let’s try to learn exactly what’s changed on the field from those first three games to the last five, identify the problems (of which there are many), and try to get this thing fixed.
First three games
Before I jump too far into the film and stats here, I do think there’s an important distinction to make about the competition that Ohio State faced early in the season, and the impact that likely had on the team’s production. Oregon State is a bad football team, with a bad defense. Rutgers is somehow worse, both in general and on the defensive side of the ball. TCU looks decent at best, and while they may have been better at the time of game, that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are now 3-4.
Compare that to the stretch of the last five games, and the competition is — generally speaking — better. Indiana and Minnesota aren’t great by any means, but they’re not Rutgers or Oregon State. Tulane is terrible, but they’re not any more terrible than Rutgers or Oregon State. Penn State and Purdue are both pretty good, though not so much defensively, which is the issue here.
With that out of the way, I’ll make a broad statement about Ohio State’s offensive play calling and execution in the first three weeks of the season. It was good. Ohio State’s offense was good for the first three weeks of the season. It was also good against Tulane and Indiana for a half. It was bad against Penn State, Minnesota, and obviously, Purdue.
In the first three weeks of the season, Ohio State ran an extremely balanced offense, keeping the ball on the ground just about 54 percent of the time, with 128 runs to 107 passes. With a quarterback this talented, that may be a bit too much running, and a flip to 46 percent running would probably fit the talent better. However, it was hard to question feeding two extremely talented running backs in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. It generally worked, and that’s what this program is built on, so I really can’t complain.
Again, this wasn’t against great competition by any means, but that balance seemed to work pretty well. Ohio State was picking up lots of yards, scoring lots of points, and doing it pretty effortlessly. It’s hard to remember much from those first two games because they were such massive blowouts, but offensively, there were little to no issues for the Buckeyes offense. Also, because they were such substantial blowouts, the ground game got more opportunities as the games wore on.
The line was blocking well for both the pass and the run, clearing holes for the running backs, and getting a good push against two dreadful defensive lines, just like they were supposed to. There weren’t a ton of big runs for the Buckeyes (this should’ve been a bigger red flag, because Ohio State has no explosiveness running the ball right now), but it wasn’t a huge deal, because they were able to put together plays like this all game long in both games.
That play doesn’t look like much, because it isn’t. It’s a basic run, Ohio State just gets a good enough push on the right side of the line, and counters seven men in the box with six of their own, bringing Rashod Berry in to help the right side of the line. Isaiah Prince crushes the end in front of him, Demetrius Knox picks up a nice block, and Berry helps to seal the edge, as Ohio State completely washes one side of the line, opening a massive hole.
Because Prince and Knox did their jobs, with help from Berry, Michael Jordan is able to get downfield and pick up a second level block, freeing Weber for an even larger gain, without making him do too much work. Malcolm Pridgeon and Thayer Munford are almost fine here, though they don’t do anything spectacular. They do their jobs, and help keep the hole open long enough to give Weber a chance to hit it.
Once again, on the same possession, all of Ohio State’s linemen do their jobs here, picking up the blocks they’re responsible for, getting a good push, and opening up a hole for Weber. The way that Ohio State uses their numbers here is super creative too. With tight end Luke Farrell offset on the left side, Ohio State uses that to their advantage.
The entire line is blocking down, with the right side sealing while the left side pushes their assignments out of the play. In doing that, Ohio State is ignoring the two defenders outside of their right side, like you would on a read option play. This isn’t that though. This is a handoff from the beginning, and because Farrell is in there, Ohio State now has six blockers for three linemen and two linebackers.
Even with Isaiah Prince making a slight mistake here (blocks the same guy as Knox), the Buckeyes are able to clear the second level because everyone did their job. Farrell and Jordan are both able to take out linebackers, giving Mike Weber a one-on-one with a safety. With these running backs, all they need is a little room to get going. Give them a one-on-one, like Ohio State did here, and they’ll win nearly every time. This kind of creativity has been completely gone from the Ohio State offense in recent weeks. The execution has been in much worse shape, and that comes back to coach overseeing the group responsible, offensive line coach Greg Studrawa.
Even in the TCU game, when Ohio State wasn’t all that great offensively, the rushing attack was far more effective.
This is a decent play at best, but it’s so much better than what we’ve seen recently from this offense. Weber isn’t busting this for a big gain for anything, but this is the kind of play that Ohio State needs to be able to make. Despite TCU loading up the box, the linemen get a good enough push and open up enough of a hole for Weber to get the first down. While the linebackers are mostly left unblocked, Mike Weber still has room, because of that initial push creating chaos. We didn’t see that at all against Purdue. Hell, we haven’t seen it since the Tulane game. Let’s get a closer look at what we have seen.
Last five games
Ohio State’s linemen are getting worse at rush blocking, and honestly, it feels like a lack of preparation more than anything else. It feels like Ohio State has made a conscious choice to work harder on pass protection than run blocking, and the lack of practice has essentially rendered what was a perfectly fine line at the beginning of the year useless against the run. They don’t know what they’re doing, and going up against eight men in the box every play — because defenses don’t fear any kind of creative play-calling — certainly isn’t helping.
As you’ve certainly noticed, Ohio state doesn’t have a quarterback capable of running with the ball. Dwayne Haskins is about as far from a runner as you’ll get in modern football. He doesn’t like to run, and he’s not good at it. Because Ohio State was so reliant on J.T. Barrett’s running ability, they’ve all but forgotten how to run without a speedy quarterback. The read option doesn’t work anymore, because there’s no threat of the QB keeping the ball. That’s especially prevalent in the red zone, where Ohio State has been held out of the end zone for back-to-back weeks now.
On this play, Purdue puts eight in the box, and every single one is set to collapse in on the handoff. Because Ohio State only has six blockers on the play, they’re going to be outnumbered no matter what, but a running quarterback can erase that, by taking the read-side edge rusher out of the play, and forcing him to think about the quarterback keep. With the other edge coming in wide, and the handoff set to go up the middle, you can essentially set this up as a six-on-six matchup, rather than the unbalanced six-on-eight they have without that option.
Both edge rushers crash with no fear of a run, making Ohio State’s blocking, which wasn’t actually terrible here, completely worthless. Dobbins has nowhere to go, and both of his cutback lanes are sealed with those unchecked edge rushers.
The easiest solution to this, obviously, would be to have a runner at quarterback in the red zone, like the Buckeyes did in 2015 with Barrett. Tate Martell is excellent at running the option, and would probably find success in a red zone role. Subbing in a running QB towards the goal line wouldn’t be new to an Urban Meyer offense by any means (he also did it with Tim Tebow in 2006 when Chris Leak was the starter), but I don’t actually think it’s my favorite option. It’s probably where the team goes, but I’m just not a huge fan of rotating quarterbacks.
What I would prefer is more creativity in the way that Ohio State’s plays are designed. Using a receiver motion decoy (Demario McCall or Parris Campbell would be perfect for this), having a guard pull out while a tackle blocks down, or even bringing in an extra tight end would all serve as smart ways to level the numbers difference that Ohio State has seen in pretty much every game since Penn State.
Of course, they could also have play-action variation of this run (which I’m sure they do), and call those in the red zone, or audible to them when you have three receivers with single coverage, and eight guys obviously set to blitz.
Haskins pulling one of these and tossing an easy touchdown to the slot receiver on a slant, Luke Farrell on an in-route, or a fade to the outside would go a long way, because it would force defenses to play Ohio State more conservatively. They’d have to drop linebackers into coverage, and their edge rushers would have to focus on the quarterback as well as the running back. This is what other teams have been killing Ohio State’s overaggressive defense with all season long, so it isn’t like the Buckeyes have never seen these concepts before either.
Now, play calling/design isn’t the only issue here. Earlier in the game, Ohio State brought out this play, which I actually love the design of, but the Buckeyes just didn’t execute it correctly. Bringing Parris Campbell in motion holds that edge rusher for long enough to open a hole on the other side, and allows Ohio State to pull both Malcolm Pridgeon and Thayer Munford to take care of the other edge (which Pridgeon does well enough) and clear space in the second level.
That’s where the mistake happens. Prince, Jordan, Knox, and Pridgeon all do their jobs here. The entire weak-side of the defense is washed out by the first three, as Pridgeon knocks the edge out of the play, which, in theory, opens a big hole for Mike Weber. The pulling Munford, Farrell, and Terry McLaurin are responsible for the remaining linebacker, safety, and cornerback.
Farrell does a decent enough job with the linebacker (though he got away with a pretty bad hold), but McLaurin is indecisive down the field, which is unusual for him. He’s out of position to block the corner, so he eventually goes to block the safety, but by that point, Munford has made the same decision. That leaves the cornerback unblocked for an easy tackle.
In this situation, with McLaurin unable to (legally) block his cornerback, he should go all out after that safety, and Munford needs to read the situation during his pull, extending it out further to demolish that corner. However, Munford isn’t looking down the field, so he doesn’t see the adjustment McLaurin makes.
McLaurin’s indecision likely comes from a lack of trust that his linemen will make the proper adjustment, which is pretty obviously warranted, given the result of the play, and given Munford’s complete lack of awareness. If Munford kicks out that corner while McLaurin cracks down on that safety, this is six points.
Once again, this is a well designed play, that fails because of execution. Pretty much the entire line does a good job here, with the exception of one player. Farrell and Johnnie Dixon both have excellent seal blocks, Munford pulls out and takes out the overaggressive corner perfectly, Pridgeon and Knox are both quiet but solid here, and despite getting blown up, Jordan is able to keep this play from being blown up. The mistake comes from Prince, who, like everyone else on the line, had a rough day against Purdue.
With the edge rusher on his side unnecessary to block (because the play is an outside run to the other direction), Prince is expected to get to the second level and get out in front of a linebacker in pursuit of the ball carrier. He does everything right until the actually block. It’s a weak attempt, and his miss gets Dobbins tackled.
Dobbins likely would’ve been taken down just a few yards later by the safety, but a one-on-one with a safety is a matchup that I’ll take Dobbins in just about every time. While Ohio State did end up getting bailed out by a dumb Purdue penalty here, this is the kind of small thing that comes back to hurt the rushing attack. Those extra yards matter.
We saw this against Penn State too, like on this dreadful play where the entire line, except for Prince, get completely destroyed from the snap.
We’ve seen these mistakes piling up more and more each week. Ohio State has gone from a 56/44 run to pass ratio in the first three games to a 43/57 in the past five. It’s gotten more drastic in each of the last three games too, dropping from 52/48 against Indiana to 42/58 in the Minnesota game, to a whopping 25/75 this past Saturday. That’s obviously a result of Ohio State’s dreadful success rate running the ball, and as we saw on Saturday, it’s not a good way for Ohio State to try to win games.
Ultimately, the fix for this offense is a bunch of small tweaks. From better play design in the red zone, to possible personnel switches — both up front and at quarterback (Martell redzone package)— to just spending more time in practice on the execution of these plays, Ohio State has lots of ways to improve the running attack.
The best would be to fire Kevin Wilson and Greg Studrawa, but they can’t really do that right now, so they just have to make do with what they have. Simplify the schemes, work on execution, and throw in some wrinkles to keep defenses on their toes.
Is that enough to get this offense back to championship contention level? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not at all confident that the coaching staff can do all of that, but if they do, the Buckeyes have a shot to return to playoff contention. They have to prove that they’re better though. Ohio State has to prove against Michigan State, against Michigan, and in the Big Ten Championship (if they win out) that they’re not just a passing team. Ohio State has to win in the trenches to win on the scoreboard, and to compete for a title.