Since the 2021 Ohio State offense averaged about 560 yards per game and led the nation in yards per play, points per game, and yards per game, it seems ridiculous to be looking for improvement. Nevermind framing the issue as a “burning question.”
But the fact remains that the Buckeye running game last season was inconsistent. There were crucial moments when it needed to step up and get the job done — and it didn’t. The inconsistency didn’t matter in the runaway games. But in the losses to Oregon and Michigan and in the few close victories, it did matter. I have no doubt that it will matter this season too.
Last year’s No. 1 offense was unbalanced. The Bucks averaged 381 yards per game passing but only 181 yards rushing per game. They averaged 16.5 first downs and 3.5 touchdowns passing. Conversely, the running attack produced an average of nine first downs and 1.3 touchdowns a game.
That kind of unbalance isn’t typical of Ryan Day’s offenses, nor of Urban Meyer’s before him. In Day’s previous two seasons leading the Buckeyes, his teams averaged 262.5 yards per game passing and 256.9 yards per game rushing in the shortened 2020 season, and 263.1 yards passing and 267.3 yards rushing per game in 2019. With the exception of 2018, when Dwayne Haskins seemingly passed on every down, Meyer’s teams had a similar balance. The 2014 championship team, for instance, averaged 247 yards passing and 264.5 yards per game running.
What was different about 2021?
First, C.J. Stroud isn’t a running quarterback and not a true dual-threat. We thought he was, and early in the season we wanted him to run more. Some still do, but I don’t really expect it to happen. Additionally, the Buckeyes last year had a trio of starting receivers whose combined quality has perhaps never been seen in the college game. Get them the ball. Finally, given the gigantic (and not particularly mobile) offensive line, the offense seemed born to pass.
In 2018, one of the reasons that Haskins passed so much was that the running backs – J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber – didn’t have very good years. Dobbins averaged only 4.6 yards per carry, far below his figure in 2017 or 2019. Meyer alternated Dobbins and Weber, and neither seemed to evolve into the go-to guy. Granted, Haskins wasn’t much of a runner either. So, the Buckeyes passed
Last year, though, the Buckeyes were loaded with superior running talent. TreVeyon Henderson proved to be a true star. Miyan Williams looked nearly as good. And both Master Teague III and Evan Pryor were strong reserves. The problem wasn’t with the backs. No, the problem with the Ohio State running game in 2021 was with the line and with the play-calling.
The running game was very predictable in certain formations: under center, pistol. Defenses knew that a run was coming and stuffed it. The line, great at pass protection, couldn’t pull wide and couldn’t get out on linebackers. The Bucks couldn’t always count on the run, and so they passed. And passed.
But let’s go back to the earlier question. Does balance matter? If OSU had the nation’s best offense – and they did – does it matter if they get their yards and TDs on the ground or in the air? Yes, and here’s why.
The importance of run/pass balance
One of the aims of any football offense is to keep the opposing defense on its heels, off balance, unsure. A well-balanced attack can do that, especially if a team can run or pass from varied formations, looks or personnel packages.
If an offense is nearly certain to pass, the safeties and linebackers are taking a first step back. The defensive line is rushing full go at the quarterback. On a sure running play, the linebackers and safeties step toward the line of scrimmage, the defensive line stays put and reads the play.
A balanced attack, at worst, has the defense holding its position — reacting, rather than anticipating. With the Buckeyes’ speed, a false step on the part of the defense could be fatal.
Obviously, 3rd-and-1 and 3rd-and-13 are different situations calling for different plays. But over the long haul of a season, a three-to-one ratio of passing for first downs against running for them (the Bucks’ ratio last year) works against offensive efficiency. You’re looking at pass defense packages, blitzes, and stunts. A balanced attack takes away that predictability. The defense has to play straight up.
Red zone offense
Let’s acknowledge it: the Buckeyes have had some trouble with red zone offense. Fortunately, they had a good kicker last year, but “settling” for field goals after good-looking drives is unsatisfying and can produce a momentum shift.
The problem with a passing attack near the opponents’ goal line is lack of room. There’s only 10 yards between the goal line and the end line. Tough to spread out the defensive backs, tough to get separation for the receivers. That end line is a defensive wall.
I know that Meyer always liked a running QB in the red zone, but a run-blocking O-line and a good back will get you over the goal line. A solid running game will freeze linebackers and open up short hook routes if you choose to throw.
The end game
With a small lead in the fourth quarter, the offense wants to be able to run the clock. Keep possession. Eat up time. A short passing game might accomplish the task. But you run the risk of incompletion (or even interception), a sack, a holding call. Any of which can stunt the drive and bring the foes’ offense back on the field. A strong running attack will have worn down the defense, and five yards a carry will finish them off.
Crush the will
A running attack that successfully picks up yardage and first downs not only wears down the defensive line but, eventually, will sap the defensive will. They realize that they really can’t stop the run. They’re getting beat on every running play. Once that happens (and it happened to the Buckeye defense in Ann Arbor), it’s very difficult to regain that confidence.
The 2022 season
Will the Buckeye running game be much improved? Yes, I definitely think so. There’s still the great passer, the nation’s best receiver, and several soon-to-be stars at wideout, but there will be a concerted effort to run the ball. Day has hired his old buddy Justin Frye to coach the offensive line. We’ll see some innovative blocking schemes designed to free Henderson, or whoever is carrying the ball.
Day has also been made very aware of his formation tendencies. I don’t think that we’ll have that problem this year. Someone (other than sportswriters and opposing coaches) is sure to be tracking tendency for the Bucks.
Then, there’s the physicality issue. The Buckeyes last year had no trouble running on weaker teams. Henderson and Williams racked up some impressive yardage. Against elite teams, however, the Buckeye line couldn’t open holes. Tough line play is certain to be emphasized in fall camp.
All in all, I think that we can expect a much more balanced offense from Ohio State this fall.