Ohio State led the Big Ten in rushing the past three seasons, and even though they finished second in 2014, their 264.5 yards rushing that season were more than any season that followed it. Under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have led the conference in rushing four times and finished second to Wisconsin twice.
This year, however, things are a bit different.
Ohio State is currently seventh in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 185.4 yards rushing per game. That average continues to drop, and the Buckeyes haven’t rushed for 185 yards since the second game of the season.
In Big Ten play, OSU’s numbers drop by almost 40 yards rushing per game.
Despite the troubles running the ball, the Ohio State offense is leading the Big Ten with 556.9 yards per game, which is about 50 more yards per game than the Buckeyes averaged last year. Of course, over their first seven games a year ago, the OSU offense was putting up 577.3 yards of offense per game.
With the weather turning in Ohio, the running game is going to become more important. The Buckeye passing game annually takes a fall this time of year, and if that happens again, Ohio State would be in trouble.
Ironically, one of the ways to make sure the passing game stays effective may also be one of the reasons the running game has been so ineffective at times.
The RPO — or “run-pass option — is an attempt to always give the offense an advantage. It is a play that is called initially as a run for the tailback, but also gives the quarterback the option to read a defensive player and keep the ball himself like a typical read-option. The third option — the ‘P’ in the equation — is that the QB also has the option to throw to an outlet receiver.
If the quarterback chooses to throw the ball, however, he has to do it quickly or else an offensive lineman can be caught run blocking downfield, which happened once to right tackle Isaiah Prince last week.
Following the Minnesota game, Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said the offensive line needs to stay on their blocks longer. When it comes to the RPO game, however, staying on their blocks too long can lead to a penalty.
Asked this week if he hates RPOs as much as defensive coaches, OSU offensive line coach Greg Studrawa plead the fifth.
“I can’t say that. I can’t say that. It’s hard,” he said through a smile.
“You saw Isaiah got called downfield on the one. He’s knocking the three technique eight yards down the field, if you watch the tape. And he’s called because Dwayne [Haskins] pumped it. So yeah, some of those they’re a little bit nervous about being called downfield. He was upset about that penalty. I’m like, ‘Kid, you drove the guy four yards down the field. You’re trying to finish a block. Great job. It’s called an ‘RPO,’ that’s part of what it is.”
This isn’t the first year that the Buckeyes have run RPOs. They did it last year with J.T. Barrett, but the passing option wasn’t as much of an option as it has become this year. Last year, the offensive line knew that a run was likely coming, be it the running back or the quarterback. This year, however, it’s either a hand-off or a throw, which is different than what they’ve had to deal with in the past.
“I think it’s a little bit different because you see what Dwayne’s doing. He’s throwing it more,” Studrawa said. “J.T. was going to run it more – hand it or run it himself. They were concerned about J.T. pulling it, whereas now Dwayne is not a run threat. He’s a threat to throw it. So it’s much different for us in the looks that we’re seeing and how they’re trying to stop the pass game with certain blitzes, it opens up more RPOs than it had before.”
While the running game may be struggling in terms of statistics, the staff considers the success of the RPOs as part of the running game. If a run play was called and it turns into a 14-yard completion to K.J. Hill, that was a good play. It doesn’t help the running game in the box score, but it still keeps a defense busy.
Short-yardage situations have become an issue of late, and the fix for that is the same for the rest of the running game. Wilson said the line needs to stay on their blocks longer. Studrawa agreed and said that linemen can’t worry about being downfield. It’s up to the quarterback to get rid of the ball in time. He just wants his offensive linemen to finish their blocks, regardless of where it takes them.
“That’s just effort and finish,” Studrawa said. “Get in the proper spot and then the effort and finish – you have to finish it and not worry about being downfield. Finish the block. If it happens, it happens, that’s part of what we are in. Just finish your block and stay after people, and that’s effort.”