Jim Tressell and Urban Meyer played two very different styles of offensive football during their respective tenures as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Tressell stuck to the traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” mantra that the Big Ten Conference built its brand on, while Meyer was known the world over for bringing spread packages to the highest levels of college football.
However, if there’s one similarity that links the two of them, it’s that each became too predictable with the basic concepts of their offense as time wore on. Tressell leaned far too heavily on the infamous interior runs affectionately known to Buckeye nation as “Dave,” while Meyer’s steady diet of read options continued to define Ohio State on early downs even after J.T. Barrett handed the reigns over to a much slower Dwayne Haskins.
It was reasonable to assume Ryan Day would merely be an extension of Urban Meyer in his own first season as head coach given the sudden regime change, but through three games, Day has shown he’s committed to blending both styles of football that have come to define Ohio State over the last two decades. As a result, Day’s adopted sons of Columbus already look more like Chameleons at this stage than traditional Buckeyes.
Ohio State’s 51-10 drubbing of the Indiana Hoosiers served as the best example of this. After sputtering out on their opening drive and missing a field goal, Justin Fields and company would come out on their next series and proceed to conduct a symphony of offense for the remainder of the half.
Below, they begin their first scoring drive of the day with a solid power run out of a spread formation against a six man front. Wyatt Davis continues to show tremendous lateral movement on pulls, and J.K. Dobbins gets a perfect seal-off block from Jake Hausmann that takes the two remaining tacklers in the box out of the play:
Fields hurries the team back to the line for their next play, and lines up under-center for the next snap. Though Indiana is playing two of their safeties back, their defense in preoccupied with not giving up another respectable gain on the ground after surrendering five yards to Dobbins just a few seconds earlier. This puts them in a very vulnerable position for a play action pass, and although Fields doesn’t give a great throw after getting a clean roll-out, Chris Olave has nearly the entire right side of the field to himself on his comeback route because of Indiana’s anxiety about trying to stop the run:
Fields and Dobbins eventually make their way into the red zone before this beautiful zone running play out of a pistol formation set the Buckeyes up for a first and goal. Indiana stacks the box with an eight man front here and is still powerless to do anything because of the scrum the zone running scheme creates. Josh Myers does a great job of slipping out here to get to the next level and block the Mike linebacker, and although Rashod Berry is late on his assignment, Dobbins is already poised to fall forward for a first down by the time he’s met at the point of attack anyway. The broken tackles are just the icing on the cake:
Indiana’s rushing anxiety would put them on their heels the entire game. The next play served as an excellent example of this despite the fact that Dobbins ended up biffing what would have been the easiest touchdown of his career. Fields comes out under-center again immediately after the Hoosiers just got gashed on the previous play, and all three of Indiana’s Mike/Sam/Jack linebackers take steps in towards Dobbins anticipating an interior run. By the time the switch goes off in their heads that it’s another play action fake, Dobbins has already leaked out to the edge for a walk-in touchdown. Unfortunately, the man came down with a temporary case of Chase Young concrete hands:
From then on, the tone for the game was set. Ohio State continued to use under-center formations with a no-huddle tempo to sucker Indiana into play action fakes that set up the Buckeyes for monster gains. Here’s a play nearly identical to the one that went to Olave earlier that goes to Austin Mack on the same side of the field. This followed a third down conversion on the ground from Dobbins, and while Indiana’s linebackers do a good job this time of not biting on the fake, Fields still has all day to deliver a far more accurate ball to Mack than the previous one to Olave:
Though that drive ultimately resulted in a punt, a similar narrative would emerge shortly after the Buckeyes got the ball back again. Facing a 3rd & short, Ohio State rotates Master Teague III into the game, and Indiana responds by once again stacking the box. The line creates a lovely mess of a zone scrum, Hausmann and Berry get excellent seal-offs on the edge, and Teague is able to rumble comfortably to a first down:
Alright, so at this point, can you guess what Ohio State wants to do on their next play? The Hoosiers are helpless to stop anything on the ground the Buckeyes throw at them, having just given up a third down conversion to a backup running back despite stacking the box. Fields comes out under-center again, hits the defense with a play action fake, and both of Indiana’s safeties are way too eager to play the run on first down. Olave gets a couple of steps on his man-to-man matchup, and suddenly Ohio State has a two score lead:
Wait, wasn’t this article supposed to be about the run game? Well, yes, but it’s important to see the relationship that these play action passes have with respect to keeping the defense honest. Ryan Day’s contextual play-calling eventually forced Indiana to stop selling out before the snap, as seen on Ohio State’s first play of their next series.
Having just blown their responsibilities over the top, Indiana’s cornerbacks focus squarely on their receivers while the safeties ensure their first steps are backwards towards coverage. Ohio State opts for a zone sweep on their first play of this drive, and while Myers and Jonah Jackson do a poor job of communicating to pick up Indiana’s Mike linebacker, Jackson makes up for it by getting to the next level and pancaking the safety. The Mike whiffs on taking down Dobbins in the backfield, and Myers gets enough of a block on his matchup to allow Dobbins to break free of the tackle for a 55+ yard gain:
A short while later came the highlight of the day for the Ohio State offense. Facing 3rd & 6 on the doorstep of the Hoosier redzone with about four minutes left in the half, Ryan Day opted to call another zone sweep to the weakside. This time, the Buckeyes have a trips right that forces the secondary to commit to the strongside, and Indiana shoots themselves in the foot with a delayed lineman shift that sends them away from the direction Dobbins is going.
This allows Myers and Davis to get to the next level immediately, and they both take full advantage of the opportunity. Myers seals-off the Will linebacker on the edge of the line of scrimmage, and Davis takes the Mike linebacker out of the play before he can even see the block coming. Dobbins makes a beautiful cut back inside underneath Davis, and the rest is just grown man strength:
Ohio State didn’t just lean on zone blocking for the rest of the game, however. Part of the reason the Buckeyes finished with two hundred-yard rushers on the day was exactly because they kept mixing up their running styles for the duration of the contest. Here’s the exact same play the Buckeyes ran to Dobbins in this article’s first highlight above, only this time it goes to Teague. Indiana aligns themselves out of position given the likely direction of the running back in a shotgun formation, which lets Davis crush the weakside defensive end on his pulling block while Jeremy Ruckert follows up with an excellent seal-off on the Will linebacker. Teague makes an awesome cut in space, hits the safety with a stiff-arm, and then shocks everyone watching with his open-field speed:
Although Indiana’s poor individual and team tackling led to many of Ohio State’s big plays on the afternoon, this game showed you exactly how dangerous the Buckeye rushing attack can be this season when all cylinders are clicking in the offensive engine. Ryan Day has tremendous confidence in his offensive linemen with respect to their understanding of both zone assignments and power responsibilities, regardless of whether the play comes from a traditional under-center look or a modern spread formation. This allows Ohio State to run comfortably in most situations outside of 3rd & long, and puts Fields in position to unleash devastating play action passes when the offense is playing up-tempo.
And I’ve waited until the end to throw praise on him, but my god, what an absolutely special player J.K. Dobbins is shaping up to be this year. Most running backs playing behind a line with this kind of positional intelligence are going to post solid numbers, but Dobbins’ ability to read the right holes, finish runs through contact, and punish weak tacklers is going to pay dividends for the Buckeyes all season. After a year on hiatus, it appears the Ohio State rushing attack is poised for an enormous bounce-back, and that should terrify absolutely every team in the Big Ten that previously though they’d only have to worry about limiting Justin Fields.