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Film Review: The Ohio State offense struggled early, leaned on physical run game in the second half

The Buckeyes’ offense started out shaky, leading to some questions from last year coming back, but a strong, physical second half propelled Ohio State to victory.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

In Ohio State’s Week 1 win against Notre Dame, the offensive output was not up to the expectation many people had heading into the game, with the final score showing 21-10. The Buckeyes won a tough defensive battle against a well-coached Notre Dame team — this is not what I expected to write coming into this week.

The Buckeyes had an up-and-down first half offensively, and had a stretch during the game where the offense failed to score on six consecutive possessions. That is not good enough, and had remnants of big game matchups from the past season, the difference this year being the defense. Matt did the leg work for me on this, but with another big game stinker from a play-calling standpoint from Ryan Day, there needs to be some self-reflection.

Too often in the first half did the Buckeyes try to force what they wanted to do against the Fighting Irish. Calling aggressive downfield passing plays while Notre Dame dropped seven or eight defenders, and throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage in questionable situations early. It took far too long for the Buckeyes to rely on the run game, and part of that stemmed from early struggles on the ground.

Once Ohio State found the physical running game, everything else began opening up. This culminated into three drives that resulted in two touchdowns spanning 15 minutes and 31 seconds of game time to ice the contest. To see how this played out, we can look at the early struggles and look back at how the Buckeyes were able to find an effective second half offensive strategy for moving the football.

Early Struggles

The Buckeyes started the game off lethargic on offense. After a decent short yardage run by TreVeyon Henderson that was helped by a face mask penalty, the Buckeyes gave up a sack and then threw an incompletion behind the line of scrimmage on a short pass to Jaxon Smith-Njigba. On 3rd-and-15, Notre Dame sat with eight players in coverage and forced Ohio State to check down. The pass was completed and the Buckeyes did not get the first down.

Looking at this from a macro standpoint, Ohio State started the game off with a four yard rush. Immediately on the next play they decide to pass the ball and they gave up a sack. This decision was made rather than running the football to create a more manageable third down. This is philosophical aspect for Ryan Day, who played quarterback. He wants to throw the football. Knowing this and knowing Notre Dame was sitting back in coverage making it much harder to throw the football, establishing the run was the best way to set up attacking through the air.

Now Day – as most people do – falls back on what’s most comfortable to him, which is throwing the football and trusting his future first-rounder at quarterback to get the job done. A big reason last year the Buckeyes went away from the run was a basic lack of trust up front for the Buckeyes. That lack of trust is a significant reason Justin Frye is now the offensive line coach.

Early on after Ohio State’s first touchdown drive, Ohio State struggled to get things going offensively for an extended period of time. In the play below, Ohio State runs their go-to running play out of the shotgun in the outside zone run scheme. The offensive line’s double teams get eaten up by the defenders, and the vertical push by the Notre Dame defensive linemen wins this play at the point of attack. Even if Stroud wanted to keep this ball, he was accounted for, and the linebackers filled well, stopping this play short of the first down — which was something that happened too often in 2021.

This led to more discombobulation offensively in how to attack Notre Dame. The passing game wasn’t effective, and the run game wasn’t getting the job done.

Establishing the run game

Ohio State went into the half down three points, only scoring the one touchdown. This was not the expectation for the offense. Notre Dame did a great job of playing a game that limited explosive plays, and this forced Ohio State into the uncomfortable position of needing to be patient.

To start the second half, the Buckeyes threw the ball three times, which resulted in three incompletions and a punt. They began finding offensive success when they committed to leaning on the offensive line and the running backs. The next series, Ohio State shifted the entire thought process.

Starting of,f they ran for four yards with Miyan Williams, but the play below is when the commitment to the run game took a foothold in the strategy. Ohio State lined up in a pistol set, they motioned Emeka Egbuka across the formation. Once the ball is snapped you can see the offensive line take this play over. From left-to-right, Paris Johnson Jr. (No. 77) lays down a devastating block in his double team with Donovan Jackson (No. 74). Luke Wypler (No. 53) gets to the second level and clears out the linebacker, which didn’t happen a lot in the first half. Not to forget them, Matt Jones (No. 55) turns his defender back inside and Dawand Jones (No. 79) carries his defender up the field.

This is the level of offensive line play that builds trust, that establishes physical football, and opens the lane for Williams to rip off a decent gain.

Later in the game, the commitment to running the ball took another step forward. Ohio State is one of the most rigid users of a zone run schemes in all of college football. This led to some issues last year due to the lack of creativity, and after Frye was hired this year, I wrote about what the new offensive line coach could potentially bring into the fold.

In the play below, we see a “GT Counter” which is a play where the opposite side guard and tackle pull to lead block through the play side gap. Enokk Vimahi (No. 66) – subbed in for Matt Jones – pulls to kick out the outside defender, and Jones (No. 79) leads through the hole to lead block the linebacker at the second level. The other three offensive linemen down block, washing down the remaining box defenders. Williams is untouched until the second level and moves the chains once again.

Lastly, Ohio State got into a few third-and-really short situations and leaned on QB1 to get those yards. My count was three quarterback sneaks, and people thought Stroud was going to run less?

Improved passing game in the second half

The Ohio State passing game took an immediate hit when Smith-Njigba was injured in the second series. They were also without Julian Fleming, who was not ready to go after pre-game warm ups. Losing two major contributors before the game is not something any team wants to deal with. Emeka Egbuka stepped up big, Marvin Harrison Jr. made some timely catches, and Jayden Ballard and Xavier Johnson both got extended reps in key moments. All of whom are faces we didn’t expect to fully be relying on for a win in Week 1.

With all that being said, Stroud managed the game incredibly well after the half time adjustments were made. Stroud recognized that Notre Dame was rarely coming out of their eight man coverages, instead electing to rush three and make Stroud beat them with accuracy. The best way to combat an eight man coverage is creating new throwing lanes by getting outside of the pocket and challenging the organization of the back end coverage. Stroud breaks the pocket here after the initial play was covered. He doesn’t stress, and the athleticism that he worked on in the offseason was in full display.

With pressure in his face and trailing him, he found Williams with an accurate ball down the sideline. This play was created by Stroud using his legs and a lot of work with the receivers on scramble drills.

Moving forward, the Buckeyes continued to march down the field, and looking at the down and distance you can see how running the football benefits the passing game. Going back to the first clip, the Buckeyes were in 3rd-and-15 against a team that was sitting on the sticks. Now picture if they ran that play in a 3rd-and-8 instead. After a successful run play, Ohio State is in a favorable down and distance where they could either run or pass. Ohio State opted for pass and they completed a long 10-yard out to move the chains. This was one of the few times Notre Dame brought pressure, and the Buckeyes were able to take advantage here.

He’s cooked

My favorite segment from last year is back. When you have an elite receiver group, it is always fun to celebrate their success. Game on the line, Ohio State is down two receivers and the Buckeyes are in an obvious passing situation. Notre Dame brings a blitz and the Buckeyes get Cover-0 on the back end. Xavier Johnson takes the opportunity and sets up his break well, creating enough separation for an easy throw-and-catch.

The Ohio State offense was by no means perfect, but the Buckeyes found out a lot about themselves in this matchup. After a questionable first half on the offensive side of the ball, the offense leaned on physicality for two quarters. This is something that the offensive staff needs to learn from and remember that there is more than one way to win a football game. If Ohio State can keep utilizing a run game that is more than capable, the offense will be that much better as the young receivers grow into their own.

Against Notre Dame, we saw how the commitment to the run game opened up the passing game. You need two aspects need to work in synergy, and by the end of the game Ohio State threw the ball 34 times to 35 rushes. As the receivers develop, the explosive plays will grow, and credit needs to be given to Notre Dame for having a game plan and sticking to it. They were not going to let Ohio State beat them with explosive plays.

Figuring out the winning strategy in the second series of the third quarter is not a great philosophy in winning games. On both sides of the ball, Ohio State showed they can win a game with physicality, and that is something to build on.