For the first time since 2003, the Buckeyes have gone five games in a row averaging less than four yards per carry.
Back then, Ohio State was still dealing with the departure of star running back Maurice Clarett and trying to do what they could to get by. It was rarely pretty, but OSU was still in the national title hunt until their loss to Michigan.
Fifteen years later, the Buckeyes have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers on the roster, but it hasn’t mattered all that much. They have been held under 100 yards rushing in their past two games, which is the first time that has happened since 2009. One of those two games was a loss to Purdue as well.
So with a bye week last week and no opponent to prepare for, the Ohio State coaches went about preparing for their toughest opponent of the season — themselves. Defensively, they worked on stopping the big plays, while on offense they focused on two main areas.
“Oh, we worked and are continuing working very hard,” Urban Meyer said on Monday. “There’s two areas, the run game and the red zone, and that was basically the whole devotion of the bye week last week on offense.”
Both struggles have been well documented. The Buckeyes are 2-for-14 in converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns against their four toughest opponents. The running game, meanwhile, is averaging about 110 yards rushing over their last four games. That’s just 10 more yards than running back J.K. Dobbins averaged last season as a true freshman.
With so many pieces returning from last year, the running game was expected to go smoothly this season. that hasn’t happened since the first week of the season against the Oregon State Beavers, however.
The only two majors changes from last year to now is a reshuffled offensive line and a quarterback in Dwayne Haskins who is much more of a thrower than a runner.
Meyer isn’t looking to scrap their system. Rather they simply need to do a better job of putting the players in positions to succeed, and the players need to take better advantage of being in those positions.
“It’s too late to do that,” Meyer said of any dramatic changes. “And schematically we’ve adapted some things, but it’s a matter of two things in my mind, and that’s first of all, getting the players in the right position. Number two, being more physical, and, you know, breaking tackles, and that’s the — so those three things, one is getting them in the right position, making sure we have structurally the right play call. Number two is to get more movement, and number three is running through tackles.”
Both Meyer and offensive coordinator Ryan Day have said that quarterback Dwayne Haskins would be willing to run the ball if asked, but it is clearly not his specialty, and so they have to find ways to make the running game go without the quarterback being a threat to run.
With Meyer’s offense being so much about equating numbers on offense and defense, and the quarterback being the one who can do that, new ways have to be found to contend with a loaded box.
“I think that when you have a little bit more of a threat at quarterback, then you equate the numbers in the box,” Day explained. “So you have one extra guy. They’re always loading up the box. No matter what level you’re at, what offense you’re in, they’re going to load up to stop the run. But when you don’t have as much of a threat at quarterback, then sometimes the numbers work against you.
“But then that opens up the pass. So when it’s time to call that, call the pass and they put the guys in there and we throw and catch the ball and we look like 100 bucks. But when it doesn’t go well, then all of a sudden we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to run the ball in the red zone. So it goes hand in hand. We’ve got to be able to throw the ball better and we’ve got to be able to run the ball better.
The idea that the Buckeyes need to throw the ball better might sound odd. After all, this is the best passing game in Ohio State history. If it was a touch better, however, then it would be covering over for red-zone deficiencies that OSU has been struggling with.
And when Day looks back at the season, and particularly the Purdue game, his feelings are completely understandable.
“Just frustrated that we’ve done so many good things and didn’t quite have a lot to show for it the other night,” he said. “And we have to play better situationally. Because we’ve done so many good things and we’ve got a lot of good players on offense and we have to just make sure that we’re executing better in the red zone and then when we need to run the ball, we’ve got to be able to run the ball.”