When C.J. Stroud took off for a 44-yard run in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, it took everyone off guard: Ohio State fans, analysts and, most importantly, the Northwestern defense. He didn’t score on that play, but the drive did end in an Ohio State touchdown that effectively sealed the win for the Buckeyes in their ugliest game of the season.
Earlier in the game, Stroud also had a 16-yard run on 4th-and-1 in the second quarter to keep a drive going. That drive would eventually lead to another Ohio State touchdown.
It was shocking to see Stroud, the archetypal pocket passer, carry out a designed run so successfully. It was also surprising to see him execute the read-option on 4th-and-1 for 16 whole yards. It’s perhaps even more absurd that we are so in awe of a quarterback running for a total of 79 yards against a 1-7 opponent. But that’s also coming from someone who hadn’t hit 10 net rushing yards in a single game this season and who had -4 cumulative yards on the season heading into Saturday.
Those plays were necessary, and showed that the Ohio State offense in general and Stroud in particular may have more tools at their disposal than we’re giving them credit for. And the Buckeyes will need a sizable tool box heading into the remainder of their schedule.
Ohio State’s win over Northwestern is a microcosm of why. The weather Saturday was horrendous. Strong winds meant throwing was almost out of the question and the Wildcats could sell out to defend the run. The fact TreVeyon Henderson was a late scratch meant that the effectiveness of the Buckeyes’ two-headed monster at running back was attenuated. There had to be another way to score points, or at least get down the field.
As a result, the Buckeyes needed to retool their offense (and fast). That’s where Stroud’s legs came in.
In this case, the aforementioned factors helped to level the playing field for the Wildcats, but think ahead to what Ohio State has coming in its season finale versus Michigan. If the Buckeyes emerge with a win at home, it means a matchup in the Big Ten Championship possibly with Illinois which has put forward a really good defense for most of the season. And of course, then we have the College Football Playoff, where mediocrity has no place.
The fact Ohio State’s rushing game has stalled in recent weeks is troubling. And while weather will not always be a factor, Saturday was a demonstration of why a one-dimensional passing offense can be ineffective. This season, one of the Buckeyes’ biggest advantages is that its offense is so multidimensional when everyone is healthy. While it didn’t feel that way, that multidimensional aspect was a factor with both a traditional run game and a rushing quarterback.
Ohio State won’t always be able to count on good weather or a full-strength lineup, which makes building flexibility even more important.
For Stroud, Saturday’s performance could still improve his draft stock. He demonstrated an ability to make plays under duress when the pocket collapses—something he has generally not experienced with a strong offensive line at Ohio State, last year’s matchup against Michigan notwithstanding. And when it comes to the NFL, even Tom Brady has the occasional rushing play
For those critics who blasted Stroud for not being able to play in the wind, he was still able to make plays and get the job done.
Stroud’s performance in Evanston this weekend happened to coincide with that of another Ohio State quarterback in Chicago. Justin Fields broke the NFL regular season quarterback rushing record, tallying 178 yards and a touchdown.
With his success on the ground, it was easy to forget that Stroud did not have a single touchdown pass Saturday—the first time that’s been the case with Stroud as a starter.
Does that mean we’ll see more designed runs for Stroud as we get to the homestretch of the season? Perhaps not against Indiana or Maryland, but breaking out that extra layer of offense against Michigan or in the CFP might just be enough to overwhelm defenses the way we saw earlier this season for Ohio State.