The Ohio State passing game has gotten off to a hot start in 2019.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields has completed 76 percent of his passes for 458 yards and 6 touchdowns with no interceptions. But still, it feels like something has been missing from the Buckeye attack.
In 2018, OSU and quarterback Dwayne Haskins cut opponents to ribbons with a seemingly never-ending string of crossing routes and mesh concepts.
This fall, those plays have been pushed to the back burner.
So why would Ryan Day willingly give up on a concept that was crucial to hanging 62 points on Michigan?
Actually, there are a couple reasons.
One is the new-look wide receiver unit. Guys like Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon, and Parris Campbell are gone. As OSU looks to replace their production, Day says they’re still getting things in place to take advantage of the new receivers’ skills.
“We’re building and learning. Probably see some different pass combinations than we’ve had in the past. Last year was a lot more crossers than it is now. And we’ll keep building that package as we go,” he said.
But there’s more to it than the Buckeyes’ new personnel. Part of it has to do with what opponents are throwing at them.
Those crossing routes and mesh plays worked well against Michigan because of what the Wolverines were doing to defend them.
UM defensive coordinator Don Brown stubbornly stuck with man coverage for most of that game. That meant that if Buckeye receivers could get a step on the person covering them, they could zip across the field unimpeded and pick up big yardage. OSU found mismatches they could exploit, like speedy Chris Olave on Michigan’s third corner, Brandon Watson.
But those passing concepts won’t work that well against every type of defense.
Saturday, instead of lining up in man coverage and daring the Buckeyes to make a play, Cincinnati played more zone. They wanted to clog up the middle and to keep things in front of them.
“First two games, they wouldn’t let us run those shallow crossers. They know what would have happened to them,” said senior wide receiver K.J. Hill.
So it’s not that OSU has ditched those concepts entirely. They’re just trying to take what the defense is giving them, and right now, the crossing routes aren’t it.
“When we get in those formations, you can see that if they see me coming across the middle, they’re going to zone it off or try to get their hands on me,” Hill said. “They know we did damage over the two years with the shallow crossers.”
Opponents selling out to stop those crossing routes is all well and good, but it opens up other things for the Buckeyes.
Saturday, with UC focused on limiting big plays and keeping players like Hill out of the middle of the field, OSU killed the Bearcats with comeback routes to the outside.
No defense can stop everything at once. On offense, it’s often just a matter of taking what the defense gives you. And don’t worry: the crossing routes will return at some point this fall.
“We have all those. We have them all. When the time is right, we’ll use them. That hasn’t been the right game plan that we think in those first couple games,” Day said.
“We still got the same offense,” Hill said. “People are prepared for those things, so we’re just adjusting, too.”