Ohio State’s offense was one of the best in the country last year, but that does not mean there is not significant room for improvement in some important aspects. This offseason, most of the emphasis has been on Ohio State’s needed improvement on the defensive side of the ball. They added three new coaches to that side, and decided a major overhaul was necessary. Offensively, a major overhaul is not necessary, but the run game does need to improve if Ohio State wants their offense to be truly maximized.
In 2021, the Buckeyes got stagnant at times and failed to sustain key drives due to failures running the football in short yardage situations. Looking at the team having young, inexperienced running backs and offensive linemen playing outside of their natural position led to these struggles. However, another huge part of the issue was Ryan Day’s predictability on obvious running downs, which will need to change in 2022.
The running game was by no means bad, but there is a lot that can improve the success heading into next season. Looking at the shortcomings one last time before heading into the season will give a baseline of what should be expected, and most importantly show that even with great stats, there is always room for improvement.
Short Yardage Failures
Last year this was the main issue for the Buckeyes, and there wasn’t just one reason that Ohio State struggled in short yardage situations. With the offense not succeeding in this regard, they struggled to maintain momentum and put teams away. Finding the why is not hard, and that is what is being shown here. The play below encapsulates almost every reason the Buckeyes lacked consistency in third-and-short, specifically.
Ohio State is playing Penn State and is down in the game early. They get into the middle of the field, which always puts offenses in a decision making bind, but Ryan Day is a coach that usually goes for it in this area past the 50. The Buckeyes lined up in an offset gun with the tight end and Treveyon Henderson on the same side. When the ball is snapped, the offensive line takes their zone steps to the right. This gives the Penn State defense an easy read for their keys to attack exactly where the ball is going.
Penn State’s three-technique defensive tackle (No. 91) blows this play up in the backfield. Ohio State has three guys responsible for three guys. Instead, they double team the defensive end, and Thayer Munford gets a weak hand on the defender not even slowing him down before he moves to the second level. The general lack of physicality and the running back being hit as he gets the hand off is not ideal.
The play call was predictable, the offensive line gave a player a free shot in the backfield, and Ohio State did not pick up the first down.
Last play showed the predictability, but looking again at Ohio State’s run game, there were some obvious tells in what they were planning to do on certain plays. Below, the Buckeyes line up in a pistol formation in another third-and-short scenario. When Ohio State was in pistol last season, they rarely ever threw the ball, and instead ran the ball almost every single time. The two plays out of this formation were split zone and stretch. This harps back to the first play: giving the defense an incredibly easy set of keys to look at.
Ohio State is running stretch to the field side in this example, and you can guess how this play goes. The Buckeyes’ offensive line takes their stretch steps, and a key to running this play successfully is getting across the face of the defender in the step path to seal them off from the play. This play gets blown up by the backside nose tackle in a one-technique. Paris Johnson Jr. steps, but is beaten upfield by the tackle, and that is the beginning to the end of this play. There were multiple other issues here. The play side three-tech swims his blocker and gets up field before Munford can get hands on him, and this player would have just as easily stopped this play.
Knowing what was coming and being able to attack is what defenses seemed to always be able to do against the Buckeyes. This was frustrating, and the predictability wasn't the root of the problem, but amplified the other issues of lacking physicality and allowing early interior penetration.
Outlook on the offensive line in 2022
The Buckeyes are looking to revamp the offensive line, which is a big reason Ohio State brought in Justin Frye. Now what that means is something we will have to wait to find out. Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson have not shown a willingness to integrate a dosage of gap schemes to the mix, mainly sticking exclusively with their zone run actions.
A good mix of split zone, inside zone, outside zone, and stretch can give you quite a bit of balance, but with formational predictability, this makes that much harder. Knowing what is coming based purely on formation and play-calling with almost no chance of getting hit with something else really allowed for defenses to tee off on an uninspired run game, but there are some fixes coming.
This year, Ohio State will have multiple fresh faces on the offensive line, and a player like Paris Johnson Jr. playing in his natural position should pay immediate dividends. The main aspect that should lead to success is getting guard body types back on the field. Last year, the Buckeyes played with four tackles, which on paper had people dreaming of major success for this unit. With Matthew Jones being pencilled in to the lineup and five-star second year guard Donovan Jackson looking physically ready, the Buckeyes will have the bodies needed to dominate in short yardage.
When asked about what Frye wants out his offensive line when he was hired, he said, “If you really have presence, then Zoe Rose Frye, my 9-year-old daughter, needs to be sitting up in her seat saying, ‘They’re gonna run the ball right there’ and we don’t care, we just do it. We get the job done.”
If the Buckeyes want to be a team that can instill fear again in these situations, they need to be able to do what they want to when they want to, regardless of the situation. Last year, the Buckeyes ran the ball effectively, but teams knew in certain situations the Buckeyes were going to run the ball, and without the mindset in the quote above, teams were able to win those battles against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State’s predictability question will remain up in the air, but Justin Frye as the new offensive line coach does come from a Chip Kelly offense with a diverse run game – which you can actually look at here. The UCLA offense ran plays like GT-Counter, mixed in some power, and still had an incredibly physical zone run scheme. Ryan Day has not shown a willingness to evolve in the run game like his mentor, but Frye should still be able to get the most out of this unit bringing his focus on physicality.
In addition, Henderson and Miyan Williams with another year of experience under their belts should improve the run game as well. Experience in this department and another year in the weight room should give the Buckeyes more confidence in their durability. The talent in the backfield is there. If the running back talent can create synergy with a physical offensive line, the Buckeyes should never have to worry in third-and-short again.
Overall, going into this season the combination of being less predictable, more physical, players being in their natural positions, and formational variability should improve this unit. The talent is there for the Buckeyes to be successful in 2022, they just need to get back to the roots of the program and dominate up front. If they do that, the run game can become the cornerstone piece of a team capable of winning a national title.