Ohio State cannot escape Clemson. No matter what the Buckeyes say about having turned the page on their Fiesta Bowl flop, the 2017 season will be influenced by the 31-0 loss to the Tigers in a playoff semifinal.
The influence looks to be positive, too, because from the ashes of that dumpster fire in the Phoenix-area desert a new philosophy is rising, namely that the evil interception is not the boogeyman hiding under the bed to snatch a win.
Let’s look at that deep-seated fear for a moment. And I say it again: Ohio State cannot escape Clemson. To better understand the Buckeyes’ abhorrence of throwing interceptions, it is necessary to know the man who built that terror into the program. And how that man — Woody Hayes — met his fate.
Woody famously denounced the passing game most of his coaching career, borrowing the line from Texas coach Darrell Royal: “Three things can happen on a forward pass, and two of them are bad.” The two things, of course, are an incompletion and interception. As it turns out, three bad things can happen — the third being loss of employment.
Hayes’ emotions went haywire after Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter tossed a pass into the arms of Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman during the 1978 Gator Bowl. Woody planted a fist into Bauman’s throat on the OSU sideline and the university fired the Old Man the morning after the 17-15 loss.
When the most famous moment from a school’s most beloved coach is a punch that follows an interception, well, no wonder getting a pass picked off became anathema to the scarlet and gray.
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Coaches hate interceptions, but Ohio State coaches have always despised them beyond what seems reasonable. Earle Bruce followed Hayes, and while he counted the passing game more of a friend than foe, engage him long enough and Earle gets around to cursing interceptions.
John Cooper came from a non-Ohio State/Big Ten background, where PASS was not a four-letter word, and he navigated the Buckeyes’ risk-reward culture better than his predecessors. But the anti-interception DNA runs deep. Jim Tressel followed Coop, and “Tresselball” became the catchphrase of a conservative offense that former OSU quarterbacks say led to them tightening up at times, fearful of throwing interceptions.
At first glance, Urban Meyer appears more open to passing miscues, but his offenses over the past two seasons have fairly resembled the Tressel approach of running the quarterback unless the receiver is barn door-wide open. You can blame the caveman-lite offense on former offensive coordinator Ed Warinner if you wish — and such criticism is not without merit — but Meyer still runs the show.
Which returns us to Clemson. How dangerous is the dreaded interception? So much so that Tigers’ quarterback Deshaun Watson threw 15 of them last season — and Clemson still won the national title. J.T. Barrett, meanwhile, tossed seven (and only 11 over the past two seasons combined). How did that Fiesta Bowl end up again? Who won the national title?
Enter new Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day. Weighing the evidence, they realize that no pass play is perfect, so the quarterback should not try to be, either.
“In the plan to win here, turnovers are huge. That’s timeless and proven to win. It’s infallible, so we’re going to play within the plan to win,” Day said. “That being said, one of the things we spend a lot of time talking about as quarterbacks is throwing the ball to contested receivers.”
In other words, throw the ball and let the receiver make a play on it. Quarterback J.T. Barrett struggled with that concept last season, but in his defense it makes sense to tuck and run or overthrow receivers on deep routes when coaches react to interceptions like punches to the throat.
Thanks in part to Clemson, a new day dawns. Time to throw the ball without worrying so much about the interception monster. It might bite, but usually won’t devour you.