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Column: Can the Ohio State win big without a big-time run game?

2021 showed us a very pass-heavy offense. Is it good enough to go all the way?

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When I wrote the LGHL’s “Market Report” for the Rose Bowl, I was flying high, still savoring the Buckeyes’ comeback victory. C.J. Stroud threw for 573 passing yards and wasn’t sacked, despite the fact that Utah boasted a great pass rush and was a national leader in sacks. I singled out the Ohio State offensive line for a job well done.

A reader submitted a valid comment, saying that he wouldn’t grade the line better than a C- because they couldn’t open running lanes for TreVeyon Henderson. Although Henderson ended up with 83 yards, on a 4.9 yards/rush, the line didn’t give him much, especially in the first three quarters of the game.

The comment recalled complaints that I had throughout the season. Why can’t the Bucks run? Can’t run for first downs. Can’t run for touchdowns in the red zone. Was the commenter right about the Rose Bowl? Even if the offense scores 48 points (all six touchdowns coming on passes) and racks up 683 yards of offense, should we be disappointed because the running game netted only 110 yards?

Well, apparently, that kind of offense was good enough to beat a tough Utah team and win the Rose Bowl. On the other hand, the Utes were playing without most of their secondary, even using a running back at one of the corners. And the lack of a reliable running game certainly accounted for some of the red zone difficulties that the Buck suffered against stout defenses.

So, here’s the big question: can Ohio State (or any big-time college team) win consistently, including championships, relying primarily – or even exclusively – on the pass? I say, “Yes.”

Obviously, you’d need an elite quarterback, outstanding receivers, and an offensive line that can protect the passer. Just the offense that the Bucks had this year. Add a running back who can break a play occasionally and catch balls on screens or wheel routes, and the offense is even more potent.

It seemed to me, against Utah, that coach Ryan Day realized early on that the Buckeye defense was in deep trouble, that a lot of points would be needed in order to win this game. In the first quarter, the Buckeyes had a couple of rushing failures. Henderson picked up only three yards on two carries in the three-and-out first Ohio State series. The second drive (also three-and-out) consisted of three pass plays, two short completions to Jaxon Smith-Njigba and then an incomplete pass, following a bad snap, that ended the “drive.”

On the third possession, the Buckeyes were looking at a 3rd and one at the Utah 25. Stroud handed off to Henderson, and he didn’t make the first down. On fourth and one, Stroud threw a touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison, Jr. After that, Day largely abandoned the rushing game until the fourth quarter. And Utah didn’t stop the Buckeyes again. Aside from the two turnovers – both deep in Utah territory – the Bucks scored on every possession.

For the game, Ohio State threw 46 (69.7% of their offensive plays) passes and ran the ball 20 (30.3%) times. Obviously, a very lopsided attack in favor of the pass. Much more so than the season, as a whole, when the Buckeyes passed on 54% of their plays. It was the right decision for the Rose Bowl and perhaps should be the template for next season.

I’m going to look back at the offenses of four recent and very successful Buckeye teams: 2014 (14-1), 2015 (12-1), 2018 (13-1), and 2019 (13-1). In every one of those seasons, Ohio State averaged more runs per game than passes. Only in the Dwayne Haskins-led 2018 season did the Bucks average more passing yards per game than rushing yards – and by a wide margin, 358.7 passing to 177 rushing. In 2021, Stroud and company passed for an average of 380.9 yards per game and rushed for 180.5.

2014 and 2015 featured Ezekiel Elliott at running back and a running quarterback, J.T. Barrett. 2019 saw a nearly even pass/rush attack, the running led by J.K. Dobbins and his 2003-yard season and Justin Fields, who ran for 484 yards. Stellar runners and running quarterbacks.

Despite what we might have thought going into this season, J.T. Stroud is not a running quarterback, rushing 32 times for -20 yards (sacks included as runs). And – go ahead and tell me that I’m wrong – Henderson isn’t yet an Elliott or a Dobbins. In fact, I would like to see much more of the harder-running Miyan Williams at RB. (Note that Williams had a higher season rushing average than Henderson, 7.1 yards per carry, as opposed to 6.8.) Big plays against weak team puffed the figures for both backs. We couldn’t really count on them for third-and-two plays.

So, the Buckeyes passed. Is that why their season is over as we approach the national championship game? I don’t think so. The blame, from me at least, is all on the Buckeye defense. I’ve changed my tune on the need for a first-rate running game and a balanced attack. Why? Look at Alabama.

When Alabama played Georgia for the SEC championship on Dec. 4, I thought that UGa, with its top-ranked defense, was the best team in the country. I didn’t put any money on the game, but I thought (and hoped) that the Bulldogs would win. They didn’t. Bama won, 41-24. The Tide used its Heisman quarterback and its All-American receivers to throw through the Dawg defense to the tune of 421 passing yards. Former Buckeye receiver Jameson Williams caught TD passes of 67 and 55 yards. Bryce Young threw 44 passes, and Alabama ran the ball only 25 times.

For the season, Bama ran and passed about the same number of times per game, about 37 each. But in terms of yardage, the passing yards were double the rushing yards, much like the Buckeyes. As I’ve said several times in other columns, Alabama is the team most like Ohio State this year. Ohio State passed 38 times per game, on average, and ran 32.4 times. Pretty similar stats. The difference is the defense. That’s why one team is practicing for a championship and the other one not.

So, what can we expect next year? Oh, I think that Day liked what he saw from the wide-open, Stroud-led passing attack. He’s so cool, so accurate. The 2022 Bucks will be a passing team. The line (three of the starters back?) will pass block. The Buckeyes will throw long passes on 4th and one. Stroud, and JSN, and (maybe) Harrison will make All America teams. Henderson, and Williams, and (maybe) Emeka Egbuka on end arounds will keep foes off balance. They’ll be tough to stop.

Will they win it all? That depends not on the pass/run ratio but on what Jim Knowles can do with the Buckeye defense. It’s OK to put the ball in the air.