Ohio State’s running game has been less than stellar over the past two games, and that is putting it mildly. After totaling at least 160 yards rushing in each of the team’s first six games, the Buckeyes have failed to reach the century mark in back to back weeks against Iowa and Penn State. In fact, Ohio State was averaging 228 yards on the ground per game on six yards per attempt before these last two contests, wherein they totaled just 66 and 98 yards rushing, respectively, on a measly 2.9 yards per attempt.
So what gives? Can we simply chalk it up to Ohio State playing against some better defenses? Well, partially. But I think the main reason for the massive downgrade in production running the football has been a lack of creativity in the run game. More specifically, a lack of diversity in play calls based on the formation the offense comes out in. Anecdotally, it felt like the Buckeyes were running the football out of the same formations every single time against Penn State, and then we got the empirical data that this was actually the case, courtesy of Bill Connelly:
OHIO STATE 44, PENN STATE 31— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) October 31, 2022
Penn State defended like crazy and made a ton of great plays, and Ohio State still averaged 7.5 yards per play. pic.twitter.com/qzreI7PjFV
Objectively, it looks like Ohio State had a pretty great day on offense based on these numbers. The Buckeyes averaged 7.5 yards per play, which is pretty good considering you'd be getting a first down every two plays. Personally, I'd take it! C.J. Stroud was really good even despite some questionable play-calling, averaging over 10 yards per attempt through the air. OSU also won the turnover battle significantly, taking the ball away four times while not giving it up once. However, the specific figures we are looking at here are the run rates:
Ohio State ran the football 100% of the time when lined up either under center or in the pistol formation, compared to only 19.6% of the time when they lined up in shotgun. Essentially, Penn State could load up the box whenever they saw either an under center or pistol look from the Buckeyes — which they did — and there was never any threat of being beaten over the top by a passing play. When a dummy like me sitting on my couch can tell you that Ohio State is going to run the football purely based on how they are lined up, the opposing defense is certainly aware of it as well. This is simply inexcusable.
Ryan Day brought in a guy like offensive line coach Justin Frye to help diversify the run game, but it doesn’t appear that he is actually allowing him to do that. We know Day gets the final word when it comes to play calls, but it seems like it wouldn’t hurt to let someone like Frye or even offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson get into the mix and change things up a bit on the ground. Day is excellent at coaching quarterbacks and designing the passing game, but a run game this predictable is simply not going to cut it against the tougher teams on Ohio State’s schedule. It didn’t fool Iowa or Penn State, and while it didn’t cost them either game, they can’t afford to do that against a team like Michigan or a potential CFP opponent.
On top of the need for play diversity by formation, Day needs to realize that this offense has to be run in reverse of the traditional way of doing things. You always hear teams talking about establishing the run to open up the pass, but Ohio State has to do the inverse. Get the offense moving with C.J. Stroud spreading the ball around to guys like Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and eventually hopefully Jaxon Smith-Njigba and force the opposing defense to take a few steps back. Once you have them on their heels, the run game should come along way easier. Also just scrap the bubble screens entirely, because throwing the football behind the line of scrimmage with these receivers is silly.
There really isn’t any excuse for Ohio State to not put together an elite running game with the players they have at their disposal. TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams are both excellent running backs, and the offensive line — alongside the tight ends, especially Cade Stover — has opened up some really great running lines when given the opportunity and put in a position to succeed. All it would really take is a few play-action passes here and there out of these formations to at least make defenses think twice about what you are doing to fix this issue. You dont have to re-invent the wheel, but you can’t be this predictable without doing literally anything else at least a few times per game.
Teams already have to throw a ton of resources on defense into slowing down a Heisman candidate quarterback in Stroud and his treasure trove of future NFL wide receivers, so a more consistent and impactful running game could take an already powerful offense to a truly elite level. This was a huge problem for Ohio State last season as well, and Ryan Day never got it fixed. Hopefully he can figure it out before The Game, or it could once again prove costly.