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Film study: What’s up with Ohio State’s offense?

Is it good? Is it bad? It’s really hard to say for sure.

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

Ohio State scored 26 points on Saturday, against an S&P+ top ten defense, on the road, in pretty crappy weather conditions. That sounds a lot better than the truth of the game for Ohio State, because of those 26 points, 12 came either directly from the defense/punting, or right off of a turnover. That means that Ohio State’s offense scored 14 points on Saturday, against an S&P+ top ten defense, on the road, in pretty crappy weather conditions.

Obviously, that’s not as encouraging. Especially not when you remember that seven of those 14 points came in the final minutes of the game on a Mike Weber touchdown run, after the game was already more or less decided. That touchdown still counts as a success for the offense of course, but it was more of an exclamation point on a gritty, ugly win than it was a triumph against an awesome defense. It was putting a nice new coat of paint on a house that fell apart in mid-October.

Ok, that may be too harsh. Ohio State’s offense, while it hasn’t been great the last four games or so, hasn’t been terrible by any means. Their 28 points per game average against Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska and now Michigan State has been enough to get three wins, but the fact that it came against two dreadful defenses (Purdue and Nebraska) a decent one (Minnesota) and a very good one (Michigan State) is certainly at least a little bit concerning.

More concerning than the pure numbers (which do matter, of course, just not as much here), is that Ohio State’s renewed focus on running in the past two games after their dreadful showing against Purdue has led to better rushing production, yes, but has also led to two of Dwayne Haskins’ worst games of the season. Haskins has still gotten his yards, as he always will, but his downfield accuracy, touchdown rate, and general confidence have all dropped pretty significantly from what he was at the beginning of the season.

It’s hard to explain exactly what’s causing that, because it’s a multitude of things, and really, the passing game isn’t a huge issue right now. Ohio State, on the whole, is still passing well, but it doesn’t feel like Haskins is operating anywhere near the that level he was just over a month ago. It doesn’t feel like he could gash any defense in the country. His yardage feels empty at times, and the Ohio State passing attack feels toothless.

The Buckeyes can move the ball in the air, but they’re not doing it with smart play-calling, or good play design. They’re doing it with pure talent, and because yards have to come from somewhere. With an offense this talented, it just feels like the passing game could be so much better.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just jaded, but it feels a lot like the last three years of J.T. Barrett did, where he was picking up yards, but Ohio State’s passing attack felt, and looked, so much weaker than what the final stats indicated. Dwayne Haskins has been awesome this season as a whole, but when you look at individual plays, he’s seemed pedestrian at times, especially recently, as Ohio State has tried to turn back into a running team.

This play is a great example of what I’m talking about. Ohio State’s offense was dreadful in the first quarter, and this play early in the second was a chance to bust the game open. Terry McLaurin had one-on-one coverage, and with the high safety frozen by an underneath route, he was able to create separation downfield. McLaurin had a step on Justin Layne, and would’ve almost certainly scored, but Haskins overthrows him by a couple yards.

Obviously, it’s easy to say that the Haskins of August, September, and even parts of October makes this throw, but it really does ring true here. With a completely clean pocket — like he had here — and an open receiver— like he had here — Haskins nails this pass earlier in the season. I don’t know if his recent struggles downfield are a confidence thing, an issue with the cold weather, or just a physical limitation, but Ohio State really can’t afford to miss on these plays.

Speaking of plays that Haskins makes early in the season that he isn’t now, this is a first down nine times out of ten with early-season Dwayne. Obviously, he isn’t entirely at fault here, because Isaiah Prince gets completely cooked by his assignment, and Haskins is pressured, but his ability to handle that pressure has gotten significantly worse as the season has gone on. Haskins forces a throw here without getting set, even though he absolutely had time, and air-mails the throw because of it.

Of course, all isn’t lost with the passing attack, and Haskins is still supremely talented, as he has been all season, and he shows that here on an absolute dart to Chris Olave. Haskins has forever in the pocket, and takes advantage, rolling a bit to his left, reading the whole field, and delivering a strike to his freshman receiver.

This is one of the best blocked plays of the game, and it needed every second of that blocking to develop, and for Olave to get open. Unfortunately, Ohio State can’t expect this kind of protection every play, and needs to have quicker developing routes called more often than they do, but this was a huge positive on one of the better Buckeye drives of the game.

Staying with positive plays for a minute, I’d really like to highlight this specific sequence. It wasn’t a big play, or even a particularly good play — it went for just about four yards and wasn’t blocked super well — but it was exactly what Ohio State needed on third and short.

It’s also an example of Ohio State finally doing two things that they haven’t all season: Successfully running on third down, and using Parris Campbell as a decoy.

Sending a speedy receiver in motion as a decoy on a handoff up the middle is an awesome way to add the possibility of an outside run without the threat of the quarterback keeping the ball. The presence of Campbell does just enough to keep the defense from collapsing in entirely, and helps J.K. Dobbins pick up enough for the first down. Little plays like that make a difference.

The second benefit of using Parris Campbell as a decoy is that when Ohio State does actually get him the ball, he has much more space to work, as we see on the very next play.

While he only gets a couple yards, there’s significantly fewer defenders on the outside than usual on those pop passes, because Ohio State set this up on the prior play. This is how this offense should be run. This is great play calling, great play design, and the kind of thing I expect to see more of from Ryan Day.

It didn’t work perfectly here, but we haven’t seen this kind of thing all season from Ohio State, and they finally started to do it on Saturday. Whether they can put it all together, and add a passing element to that motion-play is a big question (they probably can’t), but I’ll take baby steps from this staff after how bad they’ve been this season.

Oh, and of course, the use of Campbell as a decoy earlier in the drive caused this touchdown. Dobbins doesn’t even need to fake an inside run here, because the defense is thinking about the possibility of the handoff every time Campbell goes in motion now. The defensive end is frozen for just a second, but that second is enough for Campbell to get outside of him, and once he does, Ohio State has the numbers advantage they need for an easy score.

This has the exact same impact that a running threat at quarterback does, and you don’t have to bench your starting, Heisman-caliber QB to do it. This is what Ohio State’s offense needs more of.

The last thing I’ll touch on this week is Ohio State’s fourth quarter success on the ground. Mike Weber was fantastic in the last 15 minutes of the game, and while there are multiple factors that partially explain that — ranging from better blocking to Michigan State just being tired after a physical game — I’ll give credit to Weber.

He ran hard in the fourth quarter, and I think that, above all else, is the biggest reason that Ohio State was so good late in this game. With the defense worn out, Ohio State had the energy left to finally start getting a push up front, and that’s a testament to the conditioning of the program.

Will that in and of itself work against Michigan? Probably not. But it got the Buckeyes a tough win on Saturday, and after what we’ve seen from this team on the ground this season, it’s hard to be upset with it.