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Film Review: Ohio State’s recent run game struggles continue against Northwestern

The Buckeyes’ run game is struggling, and the clock is ticking when it comes to finding their identity on the ground.

Ohio State v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Heading to Illinois this time of year is never easy, and the Ohio State Buckeyes learned this in their 21-7 win over Northwestern. In conditions with 35 mile per hour winds and rain, the Buckeyes were forced to win on the ground this week, and once again did not look pleasant doing it.

Early in the game the Buckeyes tried to keep their passing offense involved, forcing the ball through the air with little success. With the winds blowing at such high speeds, the Buckeyes’ passing game was rendered useless early on in the matchup. Ohio State ran the ball 36 times to only 26 passes, and in the first half starting running back Miyan Williams averaged only two yards per carry. The weather and lack of run game success put Ryan Day into an uncomfortable position as a play-caller, constraining what the Buckeyes’ offense was able to do.

“I’ve never been around conditions like this. I don’t know what the numbers show, but there must have been 30-mile-an-hour winds. And if you ever tried playing golf in 30-mile-an-hour winds, it’s hard to get off the tee, forget throw a football. We saw this coming, so we had a plan,” Ryan Day said regarding the weather on Saturday.

Despite the weather in Evanston, Ill. – and Ohio State knowing they would need to run the ball – the running game had another sub-par effort, not to steal Ryan Day’s golf reference. Three games in a row the Buckeyes struggled to find any consistency running the football. The reasons were multiple in the failures on Saturday, but the late success in the matchup provides a little evidence that there can be success moving forward.

Run Game Struggles

The run game struggles happened early on in the matchup, which has been the case in the last three games for the Buckeyes. In their last two games against Penn State and Iowa, Ohio State ran for 3.8 and 2.2 yards per rush, respectively. Against Northwestern, the game was trending in that direction once again. In a contest that was a mirror image of some of Ohio State’s biggest matchups in 2021, they were unable to gain first downs in 3rd-and-short scenarios, and showed a lack of inventiveness to amplify the mistakes.

The lack of creativity is the place to start. Ohio State has given away tendencies leaning on runs from under center or pistol looks. Against every team on the schedule this season, you can go back and find Ohio State in a 3rd-and-short scenario running their Wide Zone to the boundary side of the field. This tendency has been recognized by three consecutive defensive staffs.

At the snap, Northwestern slants their entire defensive line to the boundary side. This allows them to cut off the offensive linemen trying to reach and turn the defenders. Matt Jones (No. 55) and Donovan Jackson (No. 74) get pushed up field. Jones getting beat inside forces Williams to bounce the ball outside. Northwestern was able to key in on tendencies, and they were able to beat the Buckeyes to their spot, leading to a huge 3rd-down stop.

In the next play, Ohio State is once again in a 3rd-and-short scenario around midfield, this time needing only three yards. If you have been following along you know the play-call here, and yes, it is wide zone to the boundary.

Looking at this play, pause the clip at two seconds and look at how far the offensive line is away from the line of scrimmage. Northwestern was consistently pushing Ohio State’s offensive line back ,changing the running angles. Even with the loss of leverage at the line of scrimmage, Williams does a solid job of staying play side, following the block into the running lane. Jones (No. 55) is responsible for getting out to the backside backer, but he whiffs on the block and the backer makes the play. This shows how important technique is in zone blocking, and when one player misses his block it can blow up the whole play.

Execution in the blocking scheme was the issue in the first two plays, and that trend continues again in Ohio State’s next 3rd-and-1 attempt. This time around, Ohio State decides to bring in their heavy-personnel package with Josh Fryar as an extra tight end/tackle.

This is technically 13-personnel with three tight ends. The Buckeyes motion Gee Scott Jr. into the formation. Scott runs a split-action to lead block across the formation, adding an additional blocker play side. The offensive line down blocks, and Fryar and Stover double team the end until Fryar comes off to help inside. Stover falls off his block right in the hole and this blows up the play.

For the Buckeyes, the run game needs to start up front, and until the offensive line begins executing at a higher level, the ground game is going to be hard to evaluate.

The last thing I personally want to hear is the predictability argument. The Buckeyes were in four obvious run situations. Tendencies are thrown out the window in short yardage run scenarios. It comes down to toughness and doing the job better than the guy across the line.

In the next play, the Buckeyes are in a pivotal 4th-and-1 spot. Ryan Day wants the team to get some momentum back, deciding to go for it on fourth down. Ohio State’s interior offensive linemen take on the the cutting nose tackles in the A-gaps. The issue here is the play is lost on the backside of the formation. Dawand Jones (No. 79) is responsible for blocking the backside backer. His job is to get to the second level and cut him off from the run-lane. Jones gets beat to the spot, and the Northwestern linebacker is able to scrape and make the play at the line of scrimmage.

Jones was not better than the man across from him on this play, and once again one small misstep led to a fourth down stop for the Wildcats.

Success in run game

Ohio State’s run game was not kept at bay for the entirety of the game, and they began finding success when they needed it most. In a call of desperation, the Buckeyes turned to the quarterback run to aid them against the loaded numbers in the box. With Northwestern consistently outnumbering Ohio State, they had to get creative and they found ways to do that.

Before halftime the game was 7-0 Northwestern with neither team scoring since the 6:45 mark in the first quarter. The Wildcats were receiving at the half, so the Buckeyes needed to get something going. As we looked at, the Buckeyes had little success running in short yardage scenarios with the backs. This was in part due to Northwestern treating Stroud as a non-threat from a running standpoint. Ohio State recognized this and saved the right play-call for the perfect moment.

Northwestern’s outside linebacker crashes down hard with the down blocks by the offensive line, and so does the nickel safety who has the quarterback run to that side. By both these players diving in, Stroud pulls the ball and gets an easy first down.

Now that Ohio State has recognized how Northwestern is attacking by keying on the offensive line steps and slanting that direction, they now have an opportunity. Ohio State motions Egbuka and blocks a wide zone to the field side. This gets Northwestern’s defense off balance and moving the opposite direction.

With Northwestern overcommitting defenders in the box, this gives the Buckeyes an opportunity to get outside with a misdirection look. Instead of needing to block eight defenders with seven, they can block two with two with Egbuka responsible for beating the backer outside. Ohio State used Northwestern’s shown tendencies against them again, and Ohio State was able to get in the end zone before the half.

The next play, Ohio State goes away from their traditional zone and runs a “Pin-and-Pull” run scheme. A “Pin-and-Pull” is a simple but effective blocking scheme. The basic rule of this concept is if a defensive linemen uncovers an offensive linemen, that offensive linemen pulls to the run action. For the rest of the offensive line, they pin the defender to the inside away from the run action.

In this case, Donovan Jackson is uncovered and the puller. Ohio State slants left and Northwestern stays consistent to their technique slanting with the blocks. The Buckeyes do a solid job pinning down the defensive linemen, and Jackson turns in the crashing defensive end, giving Miyan Williams plenty of space. At the second level, the receivers and tight end make their blocks, leading to a nice gain for Williams. Ohio State has had this run play in their bag since Week 1, but rarely go to it. This play can really add a nice dynamic and keep defenses honest with how they respond to the offensive line’s steps.

Later in the game, Ohio State once again shows a Split-Zone run concept and this time they are successful with it. The Buckeyes do a great job initially at the line of scrimmage and Stover kicks out the crashing end to open up the initial hole to run through. Williams hits the hole, and Donovan Jackson and Dawand Jones are able to make their blocks at the second level. Williams is able to get the first down here with a physical run, but more importantly it sets up the next play.

In this last play, the Buckeyes had run a few more Stroud designed runs and scrambles before they broke off a huge run. Ohio State is in a 2nd-and-9 down and distance trying to put the game away. The Buckeyes run the read option off of the same split-zone look from the previous play.

The Buckeyes’ zone blocking scheme steps to the side of the run-action of Williams. This creates a situation that puts the defensive end into a decision point. He chooses to crash down, which allows Stover to get to the second level and lead block for Stroud, who pulls the ball instead of kicking out the end. When we talk about equating numbers, the crashing defensive end creates a 3-on-2 numbers advantage for Ohio State on the outside. Stover and Marvin Harrison Jr. do a great job of getting on their blocking responsibilities, and this creates a huge gain for Stroud.

The Buckeyes would score a couple of plays later and put the game away on the back of Stroud’s running performance.

Expecting Ohio State to rely on Stroud as a runner is a relative pipe dream. The Buckeyes want to win with their blocking schemes without having to get Stroud involved. The Buckeyes’ offensive line has been struggling, and this created the need for Stroud to be a runner to help create better numbers in the box.

Against Northwestern, they used Stroud as a necessity, but the use out of necessity created a potential solution to aid the offensive line moving forward, especially in short yardage situations. With the small threat of Stroud running the ball, the opposing defensive ends and linebackers had to give that much more thought to Stroud as a runner.

“It felt good to get a couple of runs in today, and hopefully Coach Day calls some more runs. Maybe everybody in the world will be happy with me then,” Stroud said post game about the opportunities he had running the ball against Northwestern.

In the end, the onus is still on the offensive line to get right and clean up their mistakes. They missed quite a few crucial blocks in the first half, and in crunch time Ohio State took the game out of their hand with the read options. The Buckeyes can’t beat teams if they aren’t able to run in obvious run situations.

Ohio State found success late on the ground again, but the lack of consistency has been alarming. The first half struggles have yet to hurt the Buckeyes on the final scoreboard, but to reach the penultimate goal they will need to find their identity on the ground again before it’s too late.