The Path For An Ohio State Upset: Run The Clock, Run The Football, Run Past Clemson

NEW ORLEANS – I grew up in the era of college football when Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal, Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer and Bob Devaney knew the formula to win national championships. Hell, they not only knew it; they wrote it.

Their teams blocked the best. Their teams tackled the best. And most of all, their teams ran the football the best.

The passing game? Mostly, they treated it like a red-headed stepchild. (Am I allowed to say that in 2020?)

“Hell, General Patton didn’t win the war in the air,” Hayes would say. “And neither will I.”

Or …

“When you throw the ball, three things can happen and two of them are bad …”

Subsequently, my parents were forced to buy me those foam bricks they make for childish fans as I grew older, since I was known to break a remote-control or two over bad losses which I believed stemmed from bad play-calls, which often stemmed from a stubborn and steadfast refusal to throw the damn football. I know their greatest fear had to be that I would take out a TV screen, ala Elvis, but I knew where the draw the line. And I also knew Dad wouldn’t buy another one if I did.

If you are old enough to remember that infamous 10-10 tie at Michigan in 1973, when the Wolverines bunched 11 defenders at the line of scrimmage to take away Archie Griffin and to dare quarterback Cornelius Greene to throw one pass, then you know what I mean. But Hayes refused. (Corny once told me he had injured his right thumb and that scared Woody). I still believe he just did not want to give in to his protégé, Bo Schembechler.

And as I learned later, Ohio State’s offensive assistants also had begged Hayes to a throw a pass, just one pass, any pass in the second half of the game that day. And when they returned to Columbus, they had a near-mutiny on their hands for 24 hours, until the Big Ten decided to send the Buckeyes over Michigan to the Rose Bowl.

Or the 1976 Rose Bowl … Or that 1986 loss to Michigan at Ohio Stadium, when All-American receiver Cris Carter was unstoppable in the first half. The Buckeyes surprised the favored Wolverines by throwing often in the first quarter to jump to a 14-3 lead. Then Earle Bruce, God love him, went back to the running game as Michigan clawed back to win 26-24. Or the 1980 Fiesta Bowl …  there were many others and I could go on and on, but it does little good to live in the past, I am told.

However, in recent years, I have noticed something with this new breed of head coaches. The young guns, if you will: The Ryan Days, Lincoln Rileys, Sean McVays and Kevin Stefanskis of the football world.

First of all, they are very, very intelligent. Secondly, and this is a good thing, they win way more football games then they lose.

But lastly, they are so smart, so prepared, but yet so reliant on the passing game because they want to always use that well-designed play they came up with, that they sometimes forget – especially in the red zone – to do what is the most basic, what is the simplest, and what is the surest path to the end zone.

Sometimes, they fall under that “instant gratification syndrome.” It is as if, they tell the quarterback, “Give me six points and give them to me now!”

In other words, they forget to run the damn football.

Nothing drives me crazy like someone having a first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line and the offense is in shotgun formation before throwing the football.

It is as if they are negating the head start the football gods just handed them.

I will give you a few examples.

Ohio State took the opening kickoff in last year’s Fiesta Bowl against Clemson and quickly marched 69 yards in six plays, as freshman receiver Garrett Wilson made an amazing, leaping catch at the Tigers’ 5-yard line, where it was now first-and-goal. Day then called another pass, to J.K. Dobbins, which lost two yards. A Dobbins run gained three before an incompletion forced a field goal.

That would be the story of the first half – three field goals instead of touchdowns – that ultimately gave Ohio State only a 16-0 lead when it could have been much more. And that kept them without shouting distance so Clemson could claw their way back.

Then in this year’s Big Ten championship game against Northwestern, a similar scenario played out right before the first half ended. The Buckeyes, trailing 10-6, had been running the ball well when they faced a second-and-5 at the Northwestern 9-yard line, after Trey Sermon had gained five yards on first down. But Day called for a Justin Fields pass toward Wilson in the right corner of the end zone. He just didn’t throw the pass high enough and it was intercepted and that is the way the half ended.

Sermon had seven carries at halftime for 60 yards (that’s an 8.6-yard average per carry) and the Buckeyes trailed 10-6. He then carried 22 times in the second half and finished with a school-record 331 rushing yards as Ohio State outscored the Wildcats 16-0 to win 22-6. It was just one of those games that Northwestern was scared to death of giving up the big play and practically begged Ohio State to run the football.

And when a defense invites you to do something, you need to be smart enough to accept the invitation.

Afterward, when pressed on why he didn’t turn to the running game sooner, Day cited “the lack of execution” on those pass attempts rather than the calls themselves. That is true, the pass before the half was there, but the point is, the risk for a lack of execution exceeds the reward when you already are way ahead of the sticks — and yet ignore the running game.

Please don’t misinterpret things here: Ryan Day is a great football coach already at only 41 years old. He is the perfect coach for Ohio State. He recruits with the best of them. He is a great leader, motivator and human being.

I just think that sometimes in these huge games, a game like this one, perhaps he needs to go old-school a bit more when the situation calls for it. Friday night, he won’t be facing Michigan’s defense, where defensive backs appear to be running while wearing weighted boots and couldn’t find the football in the air with a map.

And this is very relevant, too, he won’t be facing Michigan’s offense, either. After all, two of the best players in the building Friday, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, cannot beat you if they are sitting on the bench watching your offense chew up yards – and the clock.

At times, especially when you are an underdog, you just have to a call a game offensively while taking into full account your defense’s matchup for when you do not have the ball.

Years ago, legendary Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne broke down his philosophy for me, as we sat by a fire one night in Tempe, Ariz., before a Fiesta Bowl. He told me, “You know, most people think football is a 100-yard game. It really is a series of 10-yard games, if you really think about it. Try your best to get those 10 yards. Whatever it takes, run or pass, but I ask myself, ‘How do I get those 10 yards?’ Then once we do, how do I get the next 10 yards? And so on, until you have six points – and there are no more first downs to get.”

These days, with high-flying, pass-happy, no-huddle offenses, I think that is a valuable lesson to be learned, particularly in one crucial area of the field – the red zone. And even more specifically, inside the opponents’ 10-yard line, where the defensive backs are bunched and there is less room for receivers to operate.

Hence, I think the Buckeyes’ surest path to an upset Friday is to win two categories on the final box score:

Rushing yards.

Time of possession.

If I could peak into the future and see those two numbers, I think I would have a good chance at picking the winner of the Sugar Bowl.

Now I must add that enticing matters for the passing attack for Day must be the fact that Clemson free safety Nolan Turner, last year’s hero after he intercepted Fields in the end zone in the final minute, will miss the first half due to his targeting call in the second half of the 34-10 win over Notre Dame.

Without Turner back there, and with Chris Olave back in the lineup, throwing more in the first half before turning to the running game in the second, depending on the score of the game of course, may make sense.

Anyway, I realize Day’s goal is to remain balanced and that makes sense, too, but when that opposing end zone – or that first-down marker — is nearby, he cannot forget about Trey Sermon. He cannot forget about Master Teague, either. And he cannot forget that Fields is a great running quarterback. (I would even love to see all three in the backfield at one time in the red zone).

All I am saying is that for Ohio State to win Friday, channeling Patton and the Army rather than the Air Force and turning old-school a bit more than usual just may be the surest path to Miami for the College Football Championship game.

[Editor’s Note: Jeff Snook, a 1982 graduate of the Ohio State School of Journalism, has written 14 books on college football.]

One Response

  1. Fields running instead of hesitating and the run game controlling the clock or not will be BIG in this game–go Bucks!

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