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Column: Is the Buckeye running game in trouble?

A few obvious suggestions for improvement.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you’re a Buckeye football fan, you know that there’s been a lot of criticism the last few weeks about the Ohio State running game and about Ryan Day’s play calling, in particular. We worry that the run needs to get better or our hopes for this season will vanish.

I’m not a football coach, and I admit that I’m not familiar with much of the terminology used currently on both sides of the ball. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of football in my day – all kinds of offenses, all kinds of quarterbacks. I’ve seen offensive formations and strategies come and go as defenses adapt to new techniques. I offer here some obvious suggestions. At least they’re obvious to me and, apparently, to a good number of other Buckeye fans out there clamoring for some variety, some change.

Quarterbacks can run too

As everyone knows, C.J. Stroud didn’t throw a pass during the abbreviated 2020 season. But, as most of us know, he carried the ball once, in a December game at East Lansing, and took it 48 yards to the house. I know that I thought at the time, “Wow, that guy can run.”

In 2021, however, a year in which Stroud has started eight of the nine Ohio State games, he’s run the ball only 21 times, gaining five yards. Most of these “runs” were sacks, falling on bad snaps, scrambles gone bad. Designed runs? I remember one in the Nebraska game, but not many more. Has he run a quarterback sneak? What’s up?

Maybe Stroud’s really still hurt – either the shoulder or something else. If that’s the case, then never mind. If it’s not the case, then either he’s choosing not to run, even on pass plays where his receivers are covered and there’s a lot off grass ahead of him, or the coaches don’t want him running. In either case, one wonders “why?”

It’s no doubt unfair to compare Stroud to Justin Fields, a genuine dual-threat quarterback, but we have to, I think. In 2020, over the eight games played (the same number that Stroud has played this year), Fields carried the ball 81 times for 385 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per carry. In 2019, Fields played in 14 games and rushed 137 times for 484 yards and 10 touchdowns. In both years, the quarterback run, whether by design or from the scramble, was a considerable part of the offense. Not this year.

Designed running plays for Stroud would help draw line and linebacker attention away from TreVeyon Henderson; successful scrambles would draw the attention of defenders away from receivers and pick up first downs, something that’s been tough for the Bucks the last couple of games. Obvious suggestion No. 1: tell Stroud to run.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Indiana
Remember Miyan Williams? This Indiana game wasn’t so long ago.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Is there now only one guy in the running back room?

I’m not present at the Ohio State practices, so I don’t know what goes on there. And I’m well aware of fans and writers earlier in the season demanding more touches for Henderson. Against Penn State and Nebraska, he got them and saw his average per carry tumble. Better competition? Of course, but still, Henderson seemed to run better as part of a rotation.

So far this season, Henderson has run 128 times, gaining 937 yards and averaging 7.3 per carry. That’s great. But Miyan Williams’s per carry average is a nearly identical 7.2 per with 318 yards on 44 carries. Master Teague has toted the rock 45 times for 253 and a 5.6 average. The point is that all of them are good. Against Nebraska, Williams and Teague combined for three carries. Henderson had 21.

I believe that a rotation (don’t get me wrong – Henderson would still be the featured back) would not only help Henderson, but it would also strain defenses since the three runners bring differing skill sets and individual strengths. Obvious suggestion No. 2: play more than one running back.

Go wide, young man, go wide

One of the criticisms leveled at Ryan Day is that all of the running plays look alike. Stroud takes the snap and hands it to Henderson, who crashes into the line between the tackles. He used to find a seam, but now he either hits a wall or gets flattened by an unblocked edge defender, crashing down. Those of us who have watched Ohio State football for more than a year or two well remember J.K. Dobbins getting a running start to the left and then catching in stride a short pass or pitch. A tight end seals, and the wide receivers get a block on their men. J.K. is loose.

We haven’t seen much of that with TreVeyon Henderson, and we should. He’s probably both faster and more elusive than Dobbins. There’s a risk, of course, of negative yardage wide, but Henderson’s getting tackled behind the line now on interior running plays. Nothing to lose. Obvious suggestion No. 3A: run Henderson (or the other running backs) wide.

Urban Meyer used to run slot receivers – I’m thinking of Curtis Samuel and Paris Campbell here, not to mention Percy Harvin at Florida – on sweeps, or what used to be called “end arounds.” We haven’t seen much of it with Day, but Garrett Wilson was successful in 2020 to the tune of 67 yards on only two carries. This year, he has 20 yards on two carries. Not bad numbers, and it’s smart to get the ball into the hands of the big playmakers. (I wouldn’t mind seeing Emeka Egbuka try it a time or two.) And, it’s yet another problem for the defense to contend with, as they’re stretched across the width of the field.

Obvious suggestion No. 3B: use the talented wide receivers on running plays.

Why the running game is important

The 2021 Buckeyes have a great offense. Only a couple of weeks ago, in fact, the Buck offense ranked first in the nation in both scoring offense and yards per game. Folks were calling it the best offense in Ohio State history. Sadly, that offense has now become one-dimensional, and the big plays that quickly racked up yardage and touchdowns have, with the clear exception of Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 75-yarder in the Nebraska game, faded into history. The Ohio State offense is now predictable and stoppable.

Let’s look at offensive balance the last few years. For the 2020 season, the Buckeyes averaged 262.5 yards and 2.8 touchdowns passing per game; they ran for an average 256.9 yards and 2.4 touchdowns. Pretty balanced. The 2019 season was much the same. OSU gained an average of 263.1 yards and 3.4 touchdowns per game through the air and 267.3 yards and 2.8 touchdowns per game on the ground. This year, the balance is gone. The Bucks average 352.8 yards passing and three touchdowns through the air. The running game averages only 189.3 yards and two touchdowns per game.

The 2021 stats are much more like Dwayne Haskins’s 2018 season, when Ohio State gained 358.7 yards per game passing and 177 yards rushing. And, though we complained about the running game that year, the Bucks averaged more touchdowns per game rushing (4.3) than passing (3.6). Granted, Dwayne Haskins wasn’t much of a runner, but the Buckeyes had trouble with the running back position that year, too. Dobbins had an off year and alternated with Mike Weber. Neither of them were a real threat. This year, the team’s loaded with effective backs and should do much better in that department.

In the red zone, a good offense has to be able to run or pass. The long passing game, which Day surely likes, can’t really function with a short field, and the receivers’ speed is negated by a lack of space. There’s no question that the recent collapse of the running game and the Buckeyes’ touchdown-scoring difficulty in the red zone are the same problem. Maybe the issue is with the offensive line. The line is made up of four natural tackles and a center. They’re great at holding their ground and pass-blocking, but do they have the quickness and mobility to get out on a linebacker when a run has been called? If not, more imaginative play-calling and some misdirection might help.

In any case the running game has problems — problems that can, and need to be fixed, as the Buckeyes make a run for championships.