clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A brief history of Ohio State’s offensive innovation

How has Ohio State’s offense progressed since the 1960s?

Football is a constantly evolving game, in all facets. College football is nearly unrecognizable 60 years ago compared to the modern day game, in pretty much every imaginable way. Massive changes in the way programs recruit, the way coaches manage development, and even in the way the game is played on the field, have led to an entirely different game from the origins of college football.

Athletes and coaches, thanks in large part to exercise and recruiting advancements, are bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter than ever, and in no place is that more evident than the way offense is played in modern day football.

We’re nearly 50 years removed from the heyday of the Wishbone, and other option systems that nearly every college football team ran in the late-60s and early-70s. We’ve progressed through the west coast offense movement of the 80s, and the I-form option brought to prominence by Tom Osborne.

Even in the past decade or so, we’ve seen the rise of the spread, RPOs, and a more diverse set of offensive schemes than college football has ever had before. Every system in college football is wildly different, and that development has led to an offensive renaissance unlike any we’ve ever seen before in the sport.

That renaissance isn’t just true as a general statement, however, and when looking for one program to display just how wildly offense has changed since the early 60s, there aren’t many examples better than Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have been near the cutting edge of every offensive innovation, from Woody Hayes’ three yards and a cloud of dust, option-influenced I-form sets, to Urban Meyer’s blazing fast spread attack, and everything in between.

I’ve spent the past few days researching Ohio State’s offensive production since 1960, and plotting out the offensive changes that define Ohio State’s storied history. Let’s take a look at the last 60 years of Buckeye offense.

1960s

Ohio State’s offense in the 60s was inconsistent, to say the least. The decade started well for its time, as Woody Hayes led the Buckeyes to solid records from 1960 to 1962 with players like Tom Matte, Bob Ferguson, Paul Warfield, and David Francis, but the Buckeyes stagnated from 1963 to 1967.

They averaged just 14.76 points per game during this time, as players like Matt Snell, Willard Sander, Tom Barrington, Paul Hudson, Bo Rein and William Long struggled through a bit of an identity crisis. While the Buckeyes still generally managed to win games, they did it despite a wildly inconsistent offense that didn’t know if it wanted to run or pass.

An awful 4-5 season in 1966 that saw the Buckeyes put up just 12 points a game showed Hayes that he needed to change his ways to survive. After a decent bounce back to 6-3 in 1967, the Buckeyes exploded in 1968, thanks to Buckeye legends Rex Kern and Jim Otis.

Jack Tatum, Rex Kern, Jim Stillwagon, Tim Anderson and John Brockington, among others became known as the super sophs, on their way to a national title and a phenomenal 32.3 points per game.

Incredibly, while they couldn’t win a title in 1969 thanks to Michigan, they managed to be even more lethal on offense, putting up 42.6 points per game, led by that same outstanding class. That output set an Ohio State record that stood until 2013.

So, what led to that offensive explosion after five down seasons, and the bottoming out in 1967? Well, those struggles finally forced Woody Hayes to make two of the most important adjustments in his career.

Firstly, Hayes expanded his recruiting efforts out of Ohio, in an attempt to add more talent. That talent grab worked, and led to the aforementioned freshman class of 1967, the class that would lead Ohio State to the title a year later.

That, however, wasn’t the most important change following that 1967 season. After years of grinding out victories with the single wing and T-formation, Hayes finally made the jump to the I-formation (thanks in no small part to assistants George Chaump and Earle Bruce), though he wasn’t fully invested yet, but more on that in a bit.

That jump was obviously worth the effort, as it helped Ohio State win the title, and ultimately, led them into the new era of offensive football, an era defined by running backs, rather than fullbacks.

1970-1979

The 70s began for Ohio State pretty similarly to how the 60s ended. Led by class-of-1967 holdovers Rex Kern, John Brockington, and Leo Hayden, the Buckeyes put up 29 points per game on their way to a championship loss to Jim Plunkett and Stanford.

After three seasons of offensive dominance with the I-form, Ohio State took a huge step back in 1971, putting up 22.4 points per game in a rebuilding season that saw the Buckeyes go 6-4 after starting 6-1.

The bounce back in 1972, much like the return to prominence in 1968, can be attributed to a huge personnel change: the addition of Archie Griffin. Griffin was an immediate impact player, and served as a massive example of what the I-form can be with a dominant back.

A little note on the I-form. While the I-form was created in it’s most popular form by Tom Nugent in the 50s at VMI, it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that it really started to take over for the more traditional single wing, T-form, and the rising wishbone. The popularization can largely be attributed to USC, and head coach John McKay, who dominated the west coast in the late 60s with running backs like Mike Garrett, OJ Smipson and Clarence Davis in the I-form.

It was that USC dominance that led directly to Ohio State’s change to the system, and made Hayes more amicable to a change from his past ways. USC was a huge problem for the Buckeyes when under McKay’s control, as the Trojans and Buckeyes faced off eight times over those 16 seasons, splitting the series, 4-4. USC antagonized Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten for much of McKay’s tenure, consistently appearing in and winning the Rose Bowl.

The Buckeyes’ loss to that Stanford I-form team that loved to throw the ball in 1970 that kept Hayes from his second title in three years was the final straw, and with Woody and his staff fully ready to buy into the I-form, the Buckeyes finally turned the corner.

The Buckeyes won nine games in 1972, and, with Archie and Cornelius Greene in the backfield, proceeded to rattle off 31 wins from 1973 to 1975. The Griffin-led Buckeyes put up a whopping 37.5, 36.4, and 32 points per game respectively over those three seasons, but came just short of a championship all three seasons, with just a tie with Michigan, and losses to Michigan State, USC, and UCLA keeping them from the titles.

It’s not hard to see why those offenses were so dominant, as is evident in the gif above (big ups to Youtube user PockyCandy, who posts awesome footage from old football games). Griffin was a dominant back, and while Ohio State still rarely passed, giving the two time Heisman a lead blocker at fullback, two tight ends and a little bit of space was enough to let him absolutely destroy defenses. The I-form is at its best with a dominant back like him.

After Griffin’s departure, the Buckeyes took a pretty big step back offensively, averaging just 25.4 points a game in 1976 on their way to a 9-2-1 finish. Ron Springs, Art Schlichter, and Jeff Logan passed the time between 1976 and 1978, as the Buckeyes struggled to get over the nine win hump.

1979 served as the end of an era for Ohio State football, as Earle Bruce took over for a disgraced Woody Hayes and led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 finish in his first season. With Schlichter at the helm, the Buckeyes began their new era with a dominant season tempered by a disappointing loss at the end. This will become a trend.

Despite the lack of a title, Ohio State’s offense was once again operating at full capacity under Bruce, and looked primed to carry their 32.5 points per game into the 80s.

1980-1989

The 80s were, all things considered, probably the worst decade of Ohio State football since the 40s or 50s. The Buckeyes were consistently very good but never great, and that was reflected not just on the scoreboard but also in the offensive production. Ohio State went 9-3 each of their first six seasons in the 80s, as they averaged a solid 31.25 points per game.

It was a time of offensive change, once again, but unlike in the 60s, head coach Earle Bruce wasn’t able to make a change in time to save his job. The Buckeyes tried to adjust to the new wave of west coast offenses that dominated with quick passes to set up vertical plays, and focused more on the quarterback than the decade that preceded it.

Ohio State’s form of the west coast wasn’t necessarily the most pure version of the style, but it worked how they wanted it to. Created in part by Bill Walsh, and popularized in college football by Lavell Edwards, the west coast offense was at it’s best at schools like Stanford, USC, UCLA, BYU, and Pitt (when they had Dan Marino), pieces of it were used pretty much everywhere.

For the first time ever, Ohio State was really starting to throw the football consistently, out of the same I-form that they used at the end of Hayes’ career. Quick passes, crossing routes (like the one shown above, video credit to OurHonorDefend on Youtube), and an occasional deep threat added another dimension to Ohio State’s offense, as long as they had a capable quarterback.

Ohio State certainly wasn’t without a capable quarterback early in the decade, as Art Schlichter lit up Big Ten defenses as much as he could in an offense that still wasn’t centered around him in any way, depite the west coast flavor. Following Schlichter’s departure, running backs Tim Spencer, Jim Gayle, Keith Byars and John Wooldridge buoyed the Buckeyes as quarterback Mike Tomczak struggled as a three-year starter, never passing for more than 2,000 yards in a season.

1986 was a slight blip; quarterback Jim Karsatos and running back Vince Workman carried the offense to 26.7 points per game and an AP-poll-peak at seventh, before a loss to Michigan sent the 9-3 Buckeyes to a Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M. While Ohio State certainly wasn’t struggling, the constant 9-3 (and losses to Michigan) were weighing heavily on the fan base, and when the Buckeyes fell to 6-4-1 in 1987, it spelled the end of the road for Earle Bruce. The Buckeyes’ offense had stagnated, and it was time for a new approach to moving the football. That change came in the form of John Cooper, the singleback offense, and his national approach to recruiting.

Cooper certainly didn’t get off to a hot start in Columbus, with the Buckeyes going 4-6-1 thanks in large part to a roster devoid of talent on offense. They struggled to just 20.8 points per game, as quarterback Greg Frey couldn’t help balance out the lack of a workhorse running back. 1989 was better but still an offensive struggle (28.3 ppg), but with freshmen like quarterback Kirk Herbstreit and the improvement of rising senior Greg Frey, things were looking up for the Buckeyes heading into the 90s.

1990-1999

It took a few years, even into the 90s, for John Cooper to really get rolling in Columbus. He was never a schematic mastermind, and Earle’s poor recruiting left Cooper with a mid-level Big Ten team. It wasn’t until his recruiting started to pick up that the Buckeyes really started to excel.

After six seasons of struggling under Cooper, Ohio State finally returned to the top of the class in 1993, going 10-1-1 and putting up 29.3 points per game after averaging 24.78 through Cooper’s first six years. Sophomore quarterback Bobby Hoying was Ohio State’s best signal caller in years, and a young Eddie George, despite early struggles, was ready to break out.

This, unlike the other turnarounds, wasn’t really due to a schematic change. Cooper was, as I mentioned, a bit lacking on the creativity side offensively, and this success was much more related to talent acquisition than anything else. Cooper adopted the offense of the time, which was a more-open-than-ever singleback look, packed with hybrid athletes that was brought to the top of college football by Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Bowden.

While that athlete driven, open system dominated college football, a new era was rising underground, at schools like Houston, Fresno State Washington, and other G5 schools, a system that would eventually run college football. The air raid is directly responsible for the spread, quarterbacks finally becoming competent, and an offensive explosion in college football. Keep that in mind, because it’ll be important later, and there will be a test (there will not be a test).

Back to Ohio State, who had not yet caught the air raid bug, and were still sticking mainly to their talent in the singleback. The Buckeyes took a step back in 1994, going 9-4 on 25.8 points per game, but with Hoying set to be a senior, George ready to dominate, and talent like Rickey Dudley and Terry Glenn out to catch passes, Ohio State was set to be a far more open offense in 1995.

If it wasn’t for their loss to Michigan, that 1995 team would’ve likely won a national title. George was as good as advertised, winning the Heisman easily. Hoying lit up defenses with help from his star wideout Glenn and the greatest offensive lineman to ever come through Columbus, Orlando Pace. The Buckeyes scored 36.5 points a game, and finally had the talent Cooper needed to run his offense.

The 1996 team was as talented as any in Ohio State history, and dropped 37.9 points per game with Stanley Jackson as the running quarterback, Joe Germaine as the passer, Pepe Pearson in the backfield, and Dimitrious Stanley leading the receivers. Once again, a devastating loss to Michigan was the only thing that kept Ohio State from a title.

After a down year (relative to Ohio State standards), Ohio State nearly won another title in 1998, thanks to Joe Germaine, Michael Wiley, David Boston, Dee Miller, and a stellar defense. They scored 35.8 points per game, but fell to Michigan State in a shocker, putting a fitting cap on the most frustrating decade in Buckeye history.

Ohio State was downright bad in 1999 with Steve Bellisari at the helm, and John Cooper’s time in Ohio State was obviously nearing its conclusion as the decade came to a close.

2000-2009

Cooper’s struggles from 1999 continued into the 2000s, and ultimately, lost him his job. The Buckeyes bounced back, but Steve Bellisari’s struggles paired with an average defense and the lack of a workhorse back led to an 8-4 season that saw the Buckeyes score 27.6 points per game and ended the John Cooper era at Ohio State. After seeing the highs and lows of a recruiting expert coach, Ohio State decided to go back to a schematic and development-centered head man, as they hired Jim Tressel after the 2000 season.

Tressel’s system certainly wasn’t anything groundbreaking for Ohio State, but his combination of Ohio ties, coaching talent and charisma made him attractive option. Tressel ran a familiar offense to Buckeye fans, with a strong slant towards safe play, possession management, and playing through a dominant running back.

With those parameters, it’s easy to see why Tressel struggled in his first season in Columbus. The Buckeyes were without a workhorse back, and while Jonathan Wells was consistent, he couldn’t carry the offense. The defense was solid, as per usual under Tressel, but the offense was only able to muster 26 points a game.

In 2002, Tressel got his dominant running back, and that was all he needed. Running an even more conservative system that Cooper did, Tressel turned his opponents into dust by the fourth quarter by running at them for the entire game, and Maurice Clarett was very good at that. There wasn’t really anything too advanced about this, but it worked for Tressel until he got absolutely tanked back to back by SEC teams in the mid 2000s.

It’s pretty hard to screw up when you have a running back that can do this. Tressel didn’t as he put Clarett with a quarterback that didn’t make mistakes, behind a massive offensive line, and got out of the way.

There’s no real reason to rehash the 2002 season. It’s a story that every Buckeye knows at this point, and if they don’t, they can read my story on it from January to get the lowdown. Ohio State’s offense wasn’t the story of that season, and while Maurice Clarett was very good, contributing greatly to their 29.3 points per game, it was the excellent defense that went undefeated and won the title, not the offense.

2003 was a step back, as Craig Krenzel and Lydell Ross weren’t nearly enough to replace the production lost with Clarett’s departure. The Buckeyes put up just 24.2 points per game, their lowest under Tressel, but still managed to win 11 games because of another dominant defense.

The next two years were spent rebuilding, as Ohio State got some experience for a young Troy Smith and gathered offensive talent like Antonio Pittman, Ted Ginn, Santonio Holmes, and a fantastic offensive line for a championship run in 2006.

The rebuild paid off, as Ohio State had their best offensive season to that point under Tressel (34.6 ppg) on the way to a dominant regular season and devastating defeat in the national title game. This was also the first year that Tressel really started exploring the newly popularized spread offense, and while he never switched to it full time, it was instrumental in keeping Ohio State competitive for the rest of the decade.

Ohio State was great again in 2007, with Todd Boeckman managing the offense and Beanie Wells absolutely devastating every defense he faced. The Buckeyes scored 31.4 points a game, and nearly won a title once again, before falling, again, to a faster SEC team. Tressel, frustrated with his team’s lack of speed, knew a change was needed. Enter Terrelle Pryor.

The star freshman didn’t have an immediate impact in Columbus. He played sparingly in his first two games, as he threw just eight passes in garbage time against Youngstown State and Pitt. He was planted firmly behind the incumbent Boeckman on the depth chart at the beginning of the season. All of that came apart, however, after a terrible first half from Boeckman against USC.

Pryor took over in the second half, completed seven of his nine passes, and never looked back. He led the Buckeyes to 27.6 points per game, and an 8-2 record over the rest of the season. While Pryor impressed in 2008, Tressel knew he had more changes to make to truly accommodate Pryor, and make up for the lack of a dominant back (despite starter Boom Herron). The Buckeyes entered 2009 with a far more shotgun-oriented offense, featuring a number of read options and open plays.

The changes weren’t massive, but they were quite the departure from what Ohio State was used to. For the first time since the late 90s, Ohio State was a legitimately versatile and dangerous offense, thanks to plays like this one, where Pryor was allowed to use his creativity to make plays. He was never a great passer, but spreading out the offense really let Pryor shine.

Those changes paid off, and Ohio State put up 29 points per game on their way to a Rose Bowl victory over Oregon and an 11-2 season. Pryor took a slight step back in 2009, but with a year in the new system, he looked primed to lead the Buckeye offense into the next decade with a big chunk of talent, like Herron, Brandon Saine, Dane Sanzenbacher, DeVier Posey and Jake Stoneburner all set to return for 2010.

2010-2017

If Buckeye football came back to life in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Buckeye offense came back to life in the 2010s. After decades of relying on dominant defenses and great running backs, Ohio State’s offense has finally awoken in the past few years, though it certainly didn’t happen how Buckeye fans (or administrators) thought it would back in 2010.

The offensive revolution began in 2010, though it didn’t truly take over until 2013. Terrelle Pryor, now a junior, led the Buckeyes to 38.8 points per game, their highest under Tressel easily. Pryor had an excellent, Heisman-caliber season (though he wasn’t considered), and if it wasn’t for a shocking upset at the hands of Wisconsin, the Buckeyes would’ve almost certainly won the national title.

Instead of winning that title, the Buckeyes opted instead for a Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas, and the complete and utter destruction of their roster, coaching staff and program on the heels of an immensely stupid scandal.

As punishment for their heinous tattoo crimes, Ohio State and interim head coach Luke Fickell went 6-6 the following year, scoring just 24.2 points a game as a freshman Braxton Miller ran for his life. As another part of the punishment, Ohio State then immediately hired the second greatest coach in the modern era of college football.

Meyer was, shockingly, a pretty massive jump start for the offense. Miller took a huge step forward, as did Carlos Hyde, Corey Brown, and the entire offense, as the Buckeyes scored 37.2 points per game. That’s the second lowest points per game for a Buckeye team under Meyer. You will never, ever believe which team is number one on that list (you absolutely will).

2013 was a lot of the same, except with an even better offense (45.5 points per game, still a Buckeye record), as Miller continued to light defenses up, Hyde fully came into his own as a dominant back, and Devin Smith joined Corey Brown as a productive receiver. Despite the excellent offensive production, it was the next season — a season that Buckeye fans remember fondly — that truly announced Urban Meyer’s true arrival.

With a true dual-threat distributor like J.T. Barrett at the helm, and the best running back in Ohio State’s history (do not @ me), Ohio State fully reached their potential in 2014, winning their first title since 2002 thanks to the two aforementioned players, Cardale Jones, a dominant defense, some of the best offensive line play you’ll ever see, fantastic receivers, and the proud MENSA member that orchestrated it, Tom Herman.

Herman’s offensive innovation led directly to Ohio State’s title in 2014, and it was the loss of Herman, paired with the addition of two truly awful offensive coordinators that led to Ohio State’s baffling collapse in 2015. Earlier, when I mentioned the worst offense under Urban Meyer, did you think it’d be this one? The one with Michael Thomas, Ezekiel Elliott, Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Jalin Marshall, Braxton Miller, and Curtis Samuel?

With the most talented roster in Ohio State’s long history, the Buckeyes scored 35.7 points per game, good enough for 20th in the country. Behind Navy, Tulsa, Ole Miss, Stanford, Southern Miss, Northern Carolina, Bowling Green, Texas Tech, Baylor, and more. A roster packed with a ton of future NFL players managed 20, 28, and 28 points against a Northern Illinois team that went 8-5, an Illinois team that went 5-7, and a Minnesota team that lost their coach two weeks prior.

2016 and 2017 were exactly as disappointing as you remember. As silly as it is to say, Ohio State is in an offensive rut once again, just like they were at the end of Earle Bruce’s tenure, John Cooper’s tenure, in the mid-60s, and in the mid-2000s. Twice in the past 60 years at Ohio State, when reaching an offensive crossroads, the head coach has made the correct change and continued to compete for many more years. Twice, a coach couldn’t get away from his old ways, and lost his job for it.

We don’t know what the change will look like yet, though when you look at Ohio State’s quarterback recruiting in 2018, and who they’re looking at for the future, it’s not hard to guess what that change might be. At this point, there’s no reason to think Urban Meyer won’t be the third Buckeye coach since the 60s to successfully update his offense.

You're Nuts

You’re Nuts: Which freshman impressed the most against Akron?

Ohio State Football

B1G Thoughts: The state of Michigan survives close games and will the good QBs please stand up?

Men's College Basketball

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Stock Report: How each conference team stands after the offseason