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Column: Are this year’s Buckeyes really a “finesse team”?

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I don’t think so, but let’s investigate.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Ohio State at Indiana Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For Buckeye fans, the wounds from the Michigan game were still raw (maybe even still bleeding) when Wolverine Offensive Coordinator Josh Gattis declared of Ohio State, “They’re a good team. They’re a finesse team, they’re not a tough team.” A compliment? I don’t think so. Good, but not tough. And “finesse”? What did he mean?

Whatever he meant, a number of commentators, including some of my colleagues who know more about football than I, have been quick to agree with Gattis’s assessment and use the term “finesse” to describe Ryan Day’s team. The word has lots of meanings (any bridge players out there?), but, generally, we associate finesse with subtlety, delicacy, even trickery. Do those qualities characterize the Ohio State football team of 2021?

I’d say “no way.” Don’t get me wrong. The Buckeye lines, on both sides of the ball, were beaten physically by their Michigan counterparts. And the situation was similar in the other OSU loss to Oregon.


Finesse Defense?

“We knew that going into the game that we can out-physical them,” Gattis continued in his post-game comments. “We can out-tough them and that was going to be the key to the game, and that’s what we prepared for all year long. You saw earlier this year in the game they lost to Oregon, Oregon was the most physical team on the field. That’s the way they lost, so we committed to that recipe and it paid off.”

As Offensive Coordinator, he’s talking primarily about the Ohio State defense. He doesn’t use “finesse” here, but he’s saying that his players can win the line of scrimmage and run against the Bucks. They did – to the tune of 297 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns, and an average per rushing attempt of 7.2 yards. A formula for an OSU loss and stats very similar to the rushing stats in the Oregon game. The Ducks rushed for 269 yards, three TDs, and a 7.1 yards per attempt average. In both games, the Ohio State defense couldn’t stop the opponents, couldn’t get them off the field, couldn’t keep them from scoring.

But “finesse”? I think of a finesse defense (if there is such a thing) as one where a team knows that they have less talent, less size, and have to rely on odd formations, lots of pre-snap shifts in an effort to confuse, multiple stunts to gain advantage on the line. Is this how OSU’s defense played. No. They played as if they would win the line – and then they didn’t.

Let’s face it. The Buckeye defensive line hasn’t played to its potential all season. And the linebackers, with the exception of Steele Chambers toward the end of the season, have been sketchy. Nevertheless, for the year, Buckeye opponents averaged 118.5 yards rushing per game, on a 5.2 yards per carry average. Not bad. If we subtract the six Michigan TDs from the 15 total rushing scores, we see that the Bucks gave up 9 rushing TDs in 11 games. Again: not bad. And against other so-called “power” teams, Ohio State fared well against the rush. Penn State had 33 yards rushing (1.1 yard average), Nebraska gained 113 on the ground (3.3 yard average), and Michigan State ran for only 61 yards (3.1 average).

That said, the problems that we saw on defense, and on offense, in the Michigan game weren’t anomalies. On defense, the absence of a pass rush and the failure to prevent first-down conversions were issues in Ohio State’s other close games. And, on offense, the inability to run the ball and failure to get a touchdown from red zone possessions were sad, but familiar, tales.


Finesse Offense?

Michigan State v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This use of the term makes more sense to me. It suggests an attack that relies on speed more than power, on misdirection and deception rather than straight ahead force. Does it fit the 2021 Buckeye offense? Closer – but I still say no.

There’s no question that Ryan Day prefers the pass to the run, and he’s built his team to suit that preference. His passer and receivers are elite. His offensive line is huge and built for pass protection. His primary running back is a breakaway threat on the ground and a good receiver. All in all, the OSU offense is explosive, high-scoring, and able to strike from anywhere on the field. And, when we were all quite happy to point to the nation’s best offense, “finesse” wasn’t mentioned. In fact, the adjective most commonly used to describe the Ohio State offense was “unstoppable.”

As Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker admitted after his team’s blowout loss to Ohio State, they simply didn’t have the players to match up one-on-one against Buckeye players and beat them. Defensive backs couldn’t cover the receivers, defensive linemen couldn’t beat the blocks of OSU linemen, they didn’t have the speed for TreVeyon Henderson. The same could be said for all of the Buckeye victories; they won on talent and getting the matchups that they wanted against inferior players.

Michigan, unlike the Spartans, did have the players, and, more importantly, Michigan coaches had them prepared to win those individual battles. (Buckeye coaching failures in the UM game are subjects for another time.) OSU gained only 64 net rushing yards, averaging 2.1 yards per run. But they didn’t try to finesse Michigan. There weren’t any end arounds. There were no quarterback draws or double passes or trick plays. They ran straight ahead and got stuffed.

We’ve seen better Ohio State rushing attacks than the 2021 version. For the year, the Bucks averaged 186.5 yards rushing per game for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. OK – but not great. Henderson averaged 7 yards per carry, and Miyan Williams averaged 7.1. Both had their averages helped by long gainers. I like TreVeyon Henderson. He’s fun to watch. But he’s not a power runner. He doesn’t run through defenders. Williams can, though. And so can Master Teague III.


Conclusion

Yeah, I object to the notion of “finesse.” Gattis meant it as a slur, and I can’t help but take it that way. But the Michigan defeat wasn’t the case of a tough team beating a finesse team; rather, it was a tough team beating a less tough team. The loss hurts. Be we can’t forget that, until November 27, TTUN and the rest of the Big Ten had no answer for Ohio State for years, whatever kind of team they put on the field.