Urban Meyer’s security blanket is from the 2014 season and imprinted with the scores 59-0, 42-35 and 42-20.
When life gets rough, like after a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl in January, the Ohio State coach instinctively reaches for The Three — a trio of consecutive games that put the Buckeyes into the playoffs, onto the championship and over the top for the national title.
Talk about happy memories. Ohio State’s offense was at its balanced best in those wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott took care of the running game, memorably breaking Bama hearts with his 85-yard sprint in the Sugar Bowl. Cardale Jones and Devin Smith handled the long passing game, Jones’ cannon combining with Smith’s talent as a high jumper to go up and over defenders.
No wonder Meyer wants to use the three-game run to the 2014 title — as well as the Michigan State game from that season — as a template for how an offense should function.
“We’re going to watch those three games again with this offensive staff, so it’s clear what things should look like and what is expected,” Meyer said Tuesday, adding that the Michigan State game also will be included because it featured excellent run/pass balance and tempo.
A knock on last year’s offense, besides the propensity to fizzle against better defenses, was the lack of fast tempo that was so effective in 2014. Interesting, however, that in the Big Ten championship game and two playoff wins the offense relied less on tempo than on a slash-bang run game and deep passing plan.
Press Meyer on what he would like to see improve in 2017 and he points to the sexier sides of offense: the breakaway run and back-breaking deep ball. Numerous times last season he bemoaned the lack of a deep passing game that defined the late surge in 2014. Meyer promised after the Clemson loss that the anemic passing game would improve. To prove his point, offensive coordinator Ed Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck went out the door, replaced by Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day.
A statistical comparison of the 2014 and ’16 seasons reveals the source of Meyer’s frustration. In 2014, the Buckeyes ranked 18th nationally in passing yards per completion (14.26 yards). Last season, they ranked 115th (10.91). Some of the drop-off must be laid on quarterback J.T. Barrett and the offensive line, which in tandem did not produce enough accuracy or time to find open receivers. But the receivers did not help, either. And the two most productive pass catchers (Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown) left early for the NFL.
Meyer is high on Parris Campbell, particularly at the hybrid back position previously held by Samuel. But bandaging an injured passing game is not Meyer’s only concern. He also wants an uptick in the running game. Mike Weber turned in an above-average season for a redshirt freshman last year (1,096 yards and nine touchdowns), but sometimes looked a half-step slow. Meyer does not expect Elliott-type speed out of Weber, but he also welcomes seeing what others can do.
Case in point, Meyer credited Weber for showing increased maturity this spring, but included an interesting addendum.
“I see him going to get pushed a little bit,” Meyer said. “J.K. Dobbins has passed Antonio (Williams), and he and Demario McCall are battling for the second spot on the depth chart. The best thing that can happen is competition, and we didn’t have much last year at that position.”
Meyer coaches using the compression method; apply pressure through competition to create diamonds. My sense is the running game will be fine. But I still wonder if the deep passing game will produce a gem?