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Column: Ohio State’s second half play calling was concerning, despite victory

But it’s concerning for why Day made the decisions, not necessarily the decisions themselves.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

First thing’s first, the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions by a score of 28-17 on Saturday despite not playing anywhere near their best game of the season, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

However, the fact that the Buckeyes were able to remain undefeated and win a division title (and a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game) is not a reason to give the team and coaches a complete pass from questioning, especially considering that the game against PSU was the first in which they had been challenged all season; meaning that it was also the first time that we were able to see how Ryan Day attacks adversity as a head coach.

That data will be immensely instructive in helping understand how Day and company will handle close situations in the stretch run towards a College Football Playoff National Championship, and — in my humble opinion — I think that there is reason for concern. However, that concern might not be exclusively (or even primarily) in the decisions that Day made, but instead more so in why he made those decisions.

In the third quarter of the game, I tweeted from the Land-Grant Holy Land account (follow us at @LandGrant33) that I found the play calling to be confusing for a number of reasons, and I remain convinced that while Day did make the decisions necessary to win the game, he did so in a manner that ran counter to what we knew about this particular game, and the team as a whole through the first 10 games of the season.

Penn State entered the contest as the 85th-ranked pass defense in the country (and 12th in the B1G) allowing 240.3 yards per game through the air. Conversely, they were fourth nationally in rushing defense, even though OSU gained 15 more yards on the first drive than the PSU defense’s per game average.

However, as the game got closer after halftime — thanks to a rash of inexplicable turnovers in the third quarter — Justin Fields only attempted eight passes, and yet had 10 rushes in the second half instead.

Now, normally, I wouldn’t think much of that; during halftime it began to rain (although not nearly as much or as hard as forecasted), and it made sense to keep the ball on the ground. After all, J.K. Dobbins had 16 carries in the second half alone as well.

But throughout the game, the FOX television broadcast highlighted the fact that Fields was dealing with some pain in his left, non-throwing hand (flexing, shaking it after plays) following a helmet hitting it and forcing the first fumble of the game on the goal line at the end of OSU’s second offensive possession.

Perhaps that injury and Fields’ reaction to it were overblown by the broadcast, but it would seem to make sense that it would be better for the QB and the rest of the Buckeyes, if Fields was not putting himself in the position to further injure his hand, or to cough up the ball again, because he wasn’t able to hold onto it as tightly as normal.

While I might be reading too much into this, Fields sure seems to be experiencing a not-insignificant amount of pain following his second fumble of the game, which occurred in the mid-thrid quarter.

We all know that if Fields has to be out for any substantive length of time, any championship aspirations that this team has almost completely disappear. Furthermore, Day knows this too, and has acknowledged it throughout the season. So why did Fields still run the ball seven more times in the game after this second fumble, when he clearly appears not to be 100 percent?

If you watched the game, you know that some of those runs were uncalled scrambles, while others were option-keepers, and that there was a draw or two as well. But, those still feel like unnecessary risks to take with the most important player on your team.

“There was a good number of those that weren’t designed for him ... for the most part [Fields is] reading somebody,” Day said after the game. “But when you’re playing against really good defenses, that’s something you have to do. And I thought he made great decisions all day.”

I certainly don’t know anywhere near the amount about this team, or football in general, as Day does, so I will believe him that Fields was making the proper decisions. But, that raises the question, why was he put in situations to have to make those decisions in the first place?

As I mentioned before, Penn State has been pretty bad against the pass this season, and Fields averaged 11.75 yards per completion against them on Saturday while going 16-for-22. So why did only eight of those attempts (and six of those completions) come in the second half, when the game was still very much in doubt? It had to be more than just the rain, right?

“We’re typically — in a moment like that, if it was a back-and-forth game,” Day said, “we’d be throwing the ball more down the field and being more aggressive. But I just felt like [our] defense was playing strong. Let’s just kind of eat some clock up and try to shorten the game. And it’s not easy to do for an offensive guy.”

I certainly understand relying on this historically dominant defense, so I’m with Day there. But, Ryan Day, an instinctively aggressive offensive play caller, went against his gut in the game and chose to play conservatively. Perhaps that was the proper move, we will never know if the game would have ended up differently, in way direction or the other, had he called more throws down field for his QB, as would normally be the Buckeyes’ M.O.

However, the more I’ve thought about the game, the more that it seems that Saturday’s second half play calling reveals a tremendous amount about Day’s comfort with two units on his team, the offensive line and the receiving corps.

Problems with the slobs

On Saturday, Ohio State gave up 10 tackles for loss, including three sacks. OSU’s official scorekeeper doesn’t record quarterback hurries, but I would venture to guess that there was at least a half dozen of those during the game in addition.

While I think that putting a potentially injured Fields in harms’ way running the ball is not necessarily the wisest of decisions, what would be even more catastrophic would be if he were to get blasted on a blitz, which leads me to think that Day chose the lesser of two evils and avoided subjecting Fields to having to contend with Penn State’s pass rush and Ohio State’s pass blocking.

On the first sack of the game, Thayer Munford — on the play immediately following a holding call against the left tackle negated a J.K. Dobbins nine-yard gain —was beaten by Yetur Gross-Matos.

On the second sack, a creative blitz design left a Penn State linebacker free to rush the passer, despite OSU having enough blockers to account for each white jersey.

And on the third sack, which was essentially the final offensive play for the Buckeyes in the game, the line again fails to account for the blitzer; this time it was right tackle Branden Bowen who didn’t pick up safety Lamont Wade. In real time, I thought that Fields should have gotten rid of it when he saw the blitz coming (and Day said as much following the game), but in rewatching it, I’m not sure that the QB ever saw Wade until it was too late.

Now, Penn State is a high-quality defense with really good players, so no offensive line is ever going to stop them 100 percent of the time, and with a quarterback like Fields, he is often able to make positive plays even when the o-line doesn’t provide a clean pocket, like this great first-down pick-up to Jeremy Ruckert in the fourth quarter, were Wade again comes in unblocked.

Munford and Bowen both had rough games against the Nittany Lions, and both have dealt with injuries throughout the season. To further exacerbate the problem, their shared backup Joshua Alabi was out on Saturday dealing with injury, and the coaching staff has been hesitant to put redshirt-freshman Nicholas Petit-Frere in important situations.

Short of the tackles getting the extra time to rest following the B1G Championship game before a potential playoff semifinal, I don’t know if there is a solution to those issues. So, with Day minimizing the passing opportunities in the second half as the game got closer, I think that at least part of that is a reflection on how he feels about the pass blocking.

We know that Fields makes near perfect decisions when given time; he has 33 touchdown passes to just one interception on the season after all, so it’s likely not a lack of trust in the QB’s ability to make the plays necessary to win late in games. But, it certainly feels like it could be a lack of trust in the offensive line’s ability to keep the QB healthy enough to make those plays, which would obviously be an issue against increased competition in the CFP.

A case of the drops

The other aspect of this decision to minimize the passing game in the second half could be a general lack of belief in the wide receivers — especially the veterans in the group — to consistently make plays. Fields was a pretty impressive 16-for-22, with two of those incompletions officially being classified as drops; one on a pretty simple pass to Binjimen Victor in the second quarter, and another just after halftime by Austin Mack.

Again, drops happen, even to the best receivers, but Victor and Mack are seniors, and should be the players that Day and Fields are able to count on in games against the best competition on the schedule. Mack is currently listed as the co-starter at the Z wide receiver position with sophomore Chris Olave, and Victor is the starter at the X receiver spot ahead of freshman Garrett Wilson.

However, unlike with the offensive line, I do think that there is reason for optimism for the wide receivers, and as unpalatable as it might be for many, including Day, it is simply to let the younger, more talented players be the ones that you trust to make plays; and with performances like this from Wilson and Olave, I think that it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

It can be difficult to remember that despite starting his career 14-0 as a head coach, Saturday’s game against Penn State was really the first time that Ryan Day had been in a game that was in doubt into the fourth quarter, and certainly there will be a bit of a feeling-out period for him to gain the experience to feel comfortable in terms of what buttons to push and levers to pull.

The same goes for the team, however, for almost everyone but Fields, they are used to being in nail-bitters for the Buckeyes in the past two seasons.

But, I whole-heartedly believe that Day is a special coach and is the perfect person to continue the legacy of Ohio State dominance started two decades ago by Jim Tressel and ramped up by Urban Meyer.

However, with perhaps the most dominating team in Ohio State history, how he navigates the remaining games on the season — especially those that come down to the wire — will tell the tale of the season, and if he isn’t able to count on his offensive line or veteran wide receivers to perform at the highest level, that will considerably hamper the Buckeyes’ ability to beat the best teams in the country.

Hopefully Day and those position groups will be able to learn from this game and smooth things out, especially as they head north to face their rival on Saturday. Because after all, it is