Scoring touchdowns in the red zone is usually the pay off for a long, sustained drive. When teams don’t capitalize in the red zone, however, it makes all of the work they did to get there essentially worthless.
Last Saturday night at Purdue, despite outgaining the Boilermakers 546 yards to 539 yards, the difference was in the red zone, where the Buckeyes failed to score a touchdown on any of their five visits. Purdue, meanwhile, scored touchdowns on all three of their trips.
The week before that, the Ohio State offense failed to reach the end zone on each of their three visits against Minnesota, meaning that the Buckeyes have failed to score touchdowns in eight consecutive trips to the red zone. In those eight visits, Ohio State scored just 12 points.
The struggles are not new this season. Against Penn State and TCU, the Buckeyes converted just two of six trips into touchdowns. All told, against OSU’s four toughest opponents this season, the Ohio State offense has converted just two of 14 red-zone trips into touchdowns. In the other four games — against Indiana, Tulane, Rutgers, and Oregon State — they have scored touchdowns on 19 of 23 visits.
Red-zone difficulties against Ohio State’s better opponents, especially of late, has caused the coaching staff to examine ways to fix what is a quickly-growing concern.
In 2015, they attempted to solve the issues with a more mobile quarterback. The same thing may have to happen this season as well.
“Running Dwayne down there really isn’t as much of an option as it used to be with J.T. [Barrett],” OSU offensive coordinator Ryan Day said this week. “Really uncovering everything. Whether it’s the quarterback run with someone like Tate [Martell] coming into the game, a wildcat package, different personnel, all those things that we’re evaluating right now.”
Not withstanding that the red-zone issues could have been less problematic last week with a couple of better throws, the idea of getting Martell into the game is one that could breathe new life into an offense that needs it.
Because of the close scores in each of the last four games, however, Martell hasn’t seen the field since the Tulane game over a month ago. His ability to run the ball would give the Buckeyes the numbers equality that Urban Meyer covets, but the offensive coaches have shown no desire to take the football out of the hands of Dwayne Haskins.
But they also can’t continue failing to score touchdowns in the red zone. During the off week they are looking at the reasons for why they have failed. If it turns out a quarterback change is needed, they will look at that, but there are drawbacks to that as well.
“That’s one of the other things,” Day explained. “Again, part of identifying what the problem is, do we change our personnel? We’re constantly looking at that. Sometimes when you make those personnel changes, you can slow down the flow of the game. But if it’s giving us a better opportunity, then we really need to look hard into that. And so we are, we’re looking into that.”
Martell will get more snaps in practice this week simply because there is time for it. But he will also get more looks in the red zone drills as well. How he performs in comparison to Haskins could land him on the field when it counts next week against Nebraska.
As mentioned earlier, it wouldn’t be the first time the Buckeyes have had to do this. When Cardale Jones won the job in 2015 and the Ohio State red zone struggled, they inserted J.T. Barrett into the lineup once the Ohio State offense got to around the 30-yard line. It wasn’t the best fix, but it was a move that had to be made.
And the staff is revisiting that situation this week as well.
“We have. Yeah,” Day said. “We’ve gone back and watched film of some of the stuff they’ve done in the past when Cardale was in there and when J.T. was in there. So all those discussions are happening.”
Those discussions continue to involve Tate Martell. Urban Meyer has said in the past that if Tate Martell is one of the top playmakers on the team, then he needs to be on the field. He has only shown glimpses this season, but when given an opportunity, he hasn’t looked overmatched.
If the coaches can’t fix the problems with Haskins, then they will have to turn to Martell in the red zone.
They may not want to switch quarterbacks in midstream, but at least what they have seen from Martell to this point has been positive.
But has it been positive enough to see it when the games are on the line? That’s probably the better question here.