In terms of pure talent on the field, Ohio State is far and away the best team in the Big Ten. Per the 247Sports Talent Composite, the Buckeyes have the third-most talented roster in the country, trailing only Alabama and Georgia. The next-best program in the B1G is Penn State at No. 13, followed by Michigan at No. 14. Ohio State has double the number of five-star prospects on its roster (10) as the Nittany Lions (3) and Wolverines (2) combined.
Of course, recruiting rankings aren’t everything, and not every five-star player coming out of high school pans out at the next level. That being said, compiling some of the nation’s best talent certainly doesn’t hurt your cause, and the more four and five-stars you can add to the depth chart gives you a higher chance of hitting on more upper-echelon players, which in turn should give you a better chance to win games.
It hasn’t helped Ohio State in big games in either of the previous two seasons. With the Buckeyes holding steady as the No. 3 team on the Talent Composite from 2021 to the present day, Ohio State suffered losses to Oregon (No. 9 in 2021), Michigan (No. 15 in 2021), and Michigan again (No. 13 in 2022). The only loss over the past two seasons to a more talented team was Georgia in the Peach Bowl, with the Bulldogs ranking No. 2 on the Talent Composite last year. As the better team on paper in three of four losses, the question becomes the coaching.
The defense was the clear and obvious reason for the shortcomings in 2021. While Kerry Coombs was a spectacular defensive backs coach during his time in Columbus, he was largely in over his head as a defensive coordinator. That was never more apparent than against the Ducks when Oregon ran the exact same run play three times for three of its touchdowns. In 2022, the defensive scheme under Jim Knowles was much better, but some poor personnel decisions cost them against Michigan, while injuries and poor late-game play-calling ultimately lost them a hard-fought game against Georgia.
Ohio State’s recruiting hasn’t been perfect, but this year’s team is once again stacked top to bottom with some of the best players from all across the country. The personnel on the field appear to be the correct ones, and other than wasting a full-time assistant coaching spot on a bad special teams coordinator, this seems like a pretty good coaching staff. So, what is going wrong this time around? Why haven’t the Buckeyes looked particularly impressive against two largely overmatched opponents to start the 2023 campaign?
The big issue thus far has been the play-calling on offense. A poorly managed quarterback competition hasn’t particularly helped matters, but Ryan Day’s decision-making has been baffling at times, especially on third down.
On the year, Ohio State has converted on third down only seven times on 23 attempts; a 30% conversion rate which ranks 113th in all of FBS. There are just three worse Power Five programs at moving the chains on third down, with only Virginia (29%), Arizona (27.8%), and Louisville (22.7%) failing more frequently. The Buckeyes have been particularly awful on third-and-short, converting just 3-of-11 attempts (27.2%) when needing four yards or less to the line of gain. Need I remind you that these two games were against Indiana and Youngstown State, an FCS opponent?
The most frustrating part of these third-down struggles has been the self-inflicted nature of why these attempts have failed. Time and time again the play calls on these third downs have been either wildly predictable or flat-out bad. Against Indiana, Day was obsessed with stretch runs into the boundary and continued to call them over and over with the same bad result each and every time. The plays were more varied against Youngstown State, but again Day strayed from the obvious answers and instead looked to pick up yardage in the most complicated and unnecessary ways possible.
One of the biggest complaints throughout Day’s tenure in Columbus has been the frequency with which he goes away from using his best players in the biggest spots. Despite Ohio State having two of the best wide receivers in the country on the roster, Day would rather target literally anyone else on third downs — whether that be a tight end or a third-string running back. Sometimes these plays wind up working out, but why are you making your life intentionally harder by not just getting the ball in the hands of Marvin Harrison Jr. or Emeka Egbuka?
I understand that you can’t target these guys on every single play, but how often would a slant to Harrison Jr. on third-and-short not result in a first down? Why not mix that in? Why not give yourself the best chance to succeed by using the best players on your roster? It seems like that would have a much higher success rate than trying to run a shotgun toss to the short side of the field or coming out in a zero wide receiver set. The plays Ryan Day tries to run in big spots are the types of plays that teams with severe talent disadvantages use in an attempt to catch people off guard. You do not need to be doing these things at Ohio State.
It is only a two-game sample size thus far, but this is not an issue that is only specific to the 2023 campaign. Day has done this consistently during his time in Columbus. The 2022 Penn State game comes to mind as a specific anecdote, as the Buckeyes kept going away from Harrison Jr. on important downs — especially in the first half of the game — despite the star receiver literally averaging 18.5 yards per catch in the game. Ohio State was ultimately bailed out by a ridiculous performance from J.T. Tuimoloau, but there is no reason to make life harder on yourself by not just going to the best players on the field.
Day is addicted to trying to look like the smartest man in the room. He has been doing it for several seasons now, and he hasn’t shown that he’s learned a single thing from prior mistakes. He is trying to account for opposing defenses to make adjustments despite them never actually showing they are going to make such adjustments. Even if they did, almost every secondary in the country would have trouble covering Harrison Jr. and Egbuka on any given play. You are hamstringing yourself by going away from what everyone knows would work, and it makes Ohio State’s struggles on offense that much more frustrating.
It is clear at this point that Day is not going to give up the play sheet, at least until something goes catastrophically wrong — which it very well could in less than two weeks if the Buckeyes don’t figure things out ahead of the trip to South Bend. It shouldn’t take losing a football game to realize that what you are doing is not working. You have one of the most talented rosters in the entire sport. There is no reason it should look this hard to put points on the board, which has been the case on most occasions even when drives have resulted in scores to start the year.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel on every third down. It is time to stop crying to the media about the new clock rules that none of the other top teams in college football are having an issue with and start coaching your incredibly talented football team better.