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With a capable runner at QB, does Ohio State return to their old red zone strategy?

Can Justin Fields fix the Buckeye red zone attack?

Redzone struggles are in no way new at Ohio State. The Buckeyes famously struggled so much inside the 20 in 2015 that they created a gameplan to bring J.T. Barrett in to replace Cardale Jones near the endzone, found mixed results, and eventually switched back to Barrett full time.

Then, the issue was an inability to avoid mistakes. Jones was able to generate big yards with his strong arm, but he struggled with accuracy and decision-making in short yardage situations, and in turn, the Buckeyes essentially were rendered useless in the air inside the 20. That forced Ohio State into a spot where the hand-off to Ezekiel Elliott became the only option, and when you have only one option, you become one-dimensional and predictable.

Recent Redzone Woes

In 2018, the offense was once again one-dimensional, though for a different reason. Dwayne Haskins, unlike Jones, thrived in short yardage situations, but Ohio State’s complete lack of a running attack forced the Buckeyes to resort almost exclusively to underneath passes. Haskins was great, but no one can score consistently when the defense knows exactly what’s coming. This came to a head against Purdue, when the Buckeyes put up a truly miserable redzone performance; however, it was a significant struggle throughout the season.

In 2015, as mentioned, Ohio State attempted to remedy the issue when they returned Barrett — a running quarterback — to the starting lineup. Barrett wasn’t much of a passing threat inside the 20, but he was decently accurate, and more importantly, he didn’t make mistakes. He provided a second rushing threat, and opened spaces for Elliott. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the early stages of the season.

It was a similar approach in 2018, though with far less success. Urban Meyer attempted to return to that well, inserting Tate Martell into the lineup in the redzone at times. Unlike in 2015 with Barrett, Martell just wasn’t a capable enough passer to merit any kind of concern from the defense. Opponents knew he was running or handing off when he came onto the field, and packed the box in anticipation. Ultimately, there was no solution for the red zone woes in 2018. So, Ohio State instead looked to score from further out, and fortunately for Buckeye fans, was usually able to do so.

Now, in 2019, we may get to see a true fix for the red zone woes, as we did in 2017 when Ryan Day was the offensive coordinator for the Barrett-led offense. In that season, the Buckeyes scored on 89.71 percent of their redzone trips. Compare that to 2015 (82.46), 2018 (77.14), and even 2016 without Day (87.10) and it’s pretty obvious that the Buckeyes are better in the redzone with a running threat at quarterback.

This is not a surprise, as it is true for just about every team in college football. Two rushing threats are always better than one when the field is compressed, and when you have a quarterback who can throw and run, like Barrett could in 2017, and like Justin Fields should be able to do this season, you become almost unstoppable near the endzone.

It’s a Numbers Game

Football — at its basest form — is a simple numbers game. Offensive philosophy is just a numbers game at its core, because you’re trying to create a situation where you either have a one-on-one matchup that you think your player can win, or, ideally, an unaccounted for player.

When you have a dual-threat quarterback, the numbers change a great deal, because defenses now have to account for an extra outcome on every play. They can’t drop into full coverage, because the quarterback might scramble. They can’t bite down and stuff the middle on an option, because the quarterback could keep the ball, roll to the outside, and score easily. They can’t just spy the quarterback, because that will either leave a receiver open, or create space for a halfback to run.

Essentially, you can create misdirection and confusion without actually doing anything. The addition of Fields into Ohio State’s backfield solves the biggest problem that they had running the football last year: no one believed Haskins was keeping the ball.

Defenses spent all season immediately collapsing on J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber in the backfield, especially in the redzone, because Haskins presented no threat with his legs. You can make up for this with motion, but Ohio State usually didn’t, so they had little to no rushing attack in short yardage situations all season long.

With Fields, that threat of the QB-keep returns. Ohio State can go back to the kind of redzone play calls that killed teams all year in 2017 — and the play calls that they bizarrely continued to use in 2018 despite zero threat of a QB-keep — zone reads.

Zone reads likely can’t carry a whole offense anymore like they did for the Buckeyes in 2013, but the read option is still an extremely valuable concept in the redzone, especially when you factor in the addition of a slant or screen option that Ohio State has on essentially every one of those plays now.

So, does this fix everything about Ohio State’s mostly bad rushing attack in 2018? No. Does it bring the Buckeyes up near 90 percent in the redzone again? No. There were structural issues up front that actively hurt the Buckeyes all season, and while there are four new starters up front — some of whom seem better suited to handle run blocking than their predecessors — I still have a healthy concern for the blocking.

It’s been several seasons since Ohio State had an offensive line that I’d consider to be good, with last year’s coming the closest entirely because of their pass protection. O-line coach Greg Studrawa hasn’t exactly inspired a lot of trust in recent years.

However, if Coach Stud’s group is at least decent in 2019, that could just be enough. Fields should be able to cover up a lot of weaknesses, and if he can take care of the ball, make the right reads, and get the ball to Dobbins when he needs to, the Buckeyes will be hitting at a much higher rate inside the 20 than they did last season.

Without an elite-level passing quarterback like Haskins (although we would love for Fields to get to that level this season), the Buckeyes will need that kind of redzone production to keep up the high powered offensive production that we’ve come to expect under Ryan Day.