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Column: For the first time in forever, I’m feeling optimistic about Ohio State’s chances

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Small changes from the OSU coaching staff have me feeling good about the team for the first time in weeks.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

What is this feeling so sudden and new, I felt the moment they beat MSU? It’s optimism, unadulterated optimism, and it’s the first time that I’ve felt it since, probably, the thrilling win over Penn State. Since then, it’s been a steady slog to Negativetown, as the Buckeyes found new, creative ways to underachieve on a weekly basis, despite an incredible collection of talent that should have embarrassed each and every opponent.

Instead, the Buckeyes struggled (to varying degrees) with the likes of Indiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska, and let’s not even get started about Purdue.

However, following yesterday’s 26-6 victory over Michigan State — a team with obvious, monumental shortcomings — I found myself being excited about the Buckeyes’ potential for the first time in six weeks. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not yet ready to pick the Bucks to knock off TTUN to earn the right to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game and then march into the College Football Playoff (this makes me nervous just thinking about it), but for the first time, I feel confident. Not necessarily in OSU winning out, but at least in the opportunity for them to have a chance to beat Jim Harbaugh’s boys in The Game.

So, what changed, you might ask? After all, the win over Michigan State wasn’t exactly extra impressive. The Spartan offense is woefully incompetent, and the OSU offense put up their fewest yards in a game all season.

Well, in a way similar to why I’ve had profound concerns about this team for weeks, my confidence isn’t exactly borne from their on-field production, but instead from some subtle, seemingly half-hearted decisions that the coaching staff has made.

For weeks, I’ve written about the Buckeyes’ issues being far more schematic that personnel centered. From Greg Schiano’s refusal to modify his press-man coverage philosophy, to Urban Meyer forcing Ryan Day to incorporate zone-read principles into the offense run by the greatest passing quarterback in program history.

While those two headaches are still rearing their ugly heads, I’ll give credit where it’s due, as they have been being reared much less frequently in recent weeks.

Defense

While many a fan (and blogger) was frustrated by the fact that the anemic Michigan State offense was able to complete 220 yards worth of passes — mostly underneath against lax coverage — I, for one, will take that every day of the week over the press-coverage resulting in a missed open-field tackle and an 80-yard touchdown catch and run.

I still have concerns over when and where Schiano and staff are choosing to employ the looser coverage, but I view this as a step in the right direction for the Buckeyes’ stubborn defensive coaches. It also helps that it looks like OSU has finally settled on a plan at safety with Jordan Fuller at the strong-side position, Brendon White at free safety, and Shaun Wade rotating in, especially with arms wide open as the nickel back.

This will certainly not solve all of Ohio State’s defensive issues, as they are still dealing with their fair share of injuries. Obviously the best defensive player in the country, Nick Bosa, isn’t coming back, but the Buckeyes were also without sophomores linebacker Baron Browning and safety Isaiah Pryor against the Spartans.

As the defensive line is finally getting healthy, the Buckeyes will need the back seven to be as close to 100 percent as possible when the Wolverines come to town on Nov. 24. The linebackers still present a multitude of issues, especially when it comes to tackling, but if the line and the defensive backfield are healthy and productive, they could compensate for Bill Davis’ chronically underachieving unit.

Offense

Let me start this section by saying that it is an absolute crime against the football gods that Meyer and the offensive staff are seemingly squandering the rare gifts of quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Between an inept offensive line and the resulting neutered running game, Haskins — who is on the verge of setting a new OSU single-season passing yards record — has been forced to carry the bulk of the Buckeyes’ offensive responsibility on his own.

Fortunately for the redshirt sophomore, he has an incredibly talented, veteran receiving corps to throw to. However, the play-callers’ inability to construct a ground game designed for a QB who isn’t a running threat continues to be mind-boggling. When it comes to how OSU has attempted to run the ball this season, it looks like they haven’t updated those pages in the playbook since J.T. Barrett departed following the Cotton Bowl last December.

However, over the past two weeks, there have been positive signs that those aggravating tendencies might be slowly giving way to sanity.

It was one thing when J.K. Dobbins went for 163 against Nebraska last week, but for Mike Weber to become only the third back on the season to break the century mark against MSU’s top-rated rush defense, that does inspire some optimism; but not because Dobbins and Weber finally, miraculously, remembered how to run the ball, but instead because the OSU coaching brain trust has seemingly (in small doses) realized how to properly utilize them in this post-Barrett offense.

For weeks, fans have been subjected to play after play of Haskins handing the ball to one of the backs on an RPO, only for the back to run directly into a brick wall of a defensive line. Opposing coordinators know that they can centralize their rushers on the point of attack, because Haskins doesn’t have the escapability that Barrett had, so there is less need to expand the line to cover the edges.

In their attempts to change things, the coaches aren’t pulling out a ton of end-arounds or toss-sweeps, but they are designing plays that give the back the ability to attack the defense from different angles. These might be incremental changes, but they are real, identifiable changes.

Take this 13-yard rush by Weber. I’m not 100 percent sure that Gus Johnson accurately diagnosed the play as a run-pass option, because Tate Martell (more on him later) didn’t throw a single pass in the game, and tight end Rashod Berry pulled from an up-back position to make a sealing block allowing Weber to make a subtle cutback and angle to the outside.


This was not the simple, run-it-up-the-gut play that we have seen over and over this season. It allowed Weber to use his vision and ability to change direction to create a big(ish) play. Now, I grant you that the presence of Martell likely changes the defense’s attention on this play, but we saw similar principles earlier in the game with Haskins in the backfield as well.

On this play, Dobbins picks up eight yards on a fairly simple counter. Here, there was no pulling tight end, but instead, Malcolm Pridgeon administered a fairly devastating seal to create a gigantic hole for Dobbins.


Neither of these runs were major, and likely neither changed the course of the game in and of themselves, but they should provide a bit of optimism that the coaches are finally shedding the shackles of the running-quarterback era and realizing that they can actually have a productive running game while still having an elite passing QB.

The Tate Question

Now that brings us to the short-yardage, red zone rushing issue that has plagued the Buckeyes throughout the season. I’ve been on record since before the season started that I thought that the OSU coaching staff should have a package of plays designed specifically to maximize what Martell does best. Some of those plays should have been with him at QB, and some should have been with both him and Haskins on the field at the same time. In fact, I’ve even come around to Martell’s skills as a passer.

However, other than the early season, first-half “Tate series,” he hasn’t seen the field for anything other than mop-up duty all year. So, for Meyer to only use him now, because he can’t figure out how to use his elite running backs and the best passing QB in school history shows just how stubborn he and his staff are when it comes to making substantive adjustments.

My colleague, Patrick Mayhorn said it perfectly in today’s Stock Market Report, “It’s the least creative solution for a team that can’t run up the middle, and it’s a band-aid fix at best.”

For all of the supposedly creative offensive minds on staff in Meyer, Day, and Kevin Wilson, certainly someone has to be able to come up with ways to negate the advantage that defenses have had in every game since Penn State by sending more rushers than OSU has blockers. Some of that can obviously be accomplished with the design of the running plays mentioned above. But, both of those came from outside the red zone (though Weber’s was close).

If they had been able to do these things throughout the season, there would be no reason now to pull your Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback off of the field in the game’s most crucial moments. If the coaches had been able to establish a coherent running philosophy, then I would have nearly no problem with Martell getting some playing time against Maryland, Michigan, and in whatever games come after that.

But, if this is how Meyer is going to use Martell moving forward — as he indicated it would be in his post game presser — it must come with a legitimate threat to throw the ball, and it shouldn’t be just in the red zone and short yardage. If you’re going to get creative, actually get creative. Run some fly sweeps and double passes with him. Line up both QBs in the backfield and let Michael Jordan just pick which one he wants to snap it to.

The problem with OSU’s running game all season has been its mind-numbing predictability. If you are only going to bring Martell in to either run or handoff, you are still going to be pretty predictable. Granted, not in the same ways as with Haskins, but predictable nonetheless. It’s time for the Ohio State coaching staff to earn the millions of dollars that fans and taxpayers are paying them. We’ve seen small changes over the past two games, but with a matchup with Michigan on the horizon, it’s time to turn it up to 11.