BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — For awhile — and it felt like a long while if you are a member of Buckeye Nation — Ohio State drove the same clunker of an offense that pulled into the Fiesta Bowl last New Year’s Eve.
You remember that offense, right? The one that put a big fat zero on the scoreboard against Clemson in a 31-0 loss to the Tigers in a playoff semifinal? Of course you do. It’s like that nightmare where you’re falling. Or the one where at age 40 you’re still waking up in a sweat thinking you slept through your college final. OK, so some of us actually did, but you get the picture.
Urban Meyer supposedly fixed that sputtering engine — the one that struggled to catch … and throw … and run — by replacing ill-fitting parts with new ones. The Ohio State coach changed out offensive coordinator Ed Warinner — an excellent offensive line coach in 2014 but not-so-hot offensive coordinator the past two seasons — with passing game guru Kevin Wilson. Meyer also subbed out quarterbacks coach Tim Beck for Ryan Day.
Seven months after rolling out the offense that stalled against Clemson, the Buckeyes’ supposedly new and improved model showed up at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium on Thursday night and initially chugged along like a Chevrolet Vega. If you ever drove one of those babies — we had two of them — you recall the thing was reliable to a T; a Model T, that is. But, and this is the important part, the vexing vehicle still got you where you wanted to go.
And so it was with the Buckeyes’ offense against the Hoosiers. It got them to their desired destination, turning what began as a dicey season opener into a 49-21 win.
It wasn’t always pretty; at times it was downright ugly. And it wasn’t just the offense that sputtered. The Buckeyes’ secondary got torched for 420 yards.
“Our defense was exposed big time in the first half,” Meyer said. “Our pass defense was awful. The corners have to step up.”
Only one full-time starter returns from a secondary that lost three first-round draft picks to the NFL. The defense will improve. The offense? We shall see. Early on, quarterback J.T. Barrett did not look any better completing passes than he did last year. His receivers did not look any better catching them, either.
“Obviously, we made such an emphasis on deep balls (during the off-season), and I am somewhat disappointed because they bobbled it a little bit,” Meyer said.
Then something interesting happened. Maybe it was a coaching lightbulb moment, an epiphany born of desperation. Or maybe Meyer and Wilson knew what they were doing all along and it just took them the entire first half to unveil the plan. Regardless, the Buckeyes put into practice a passing strategy that turned a nail-biter into a knockout punch: Throw short. Run long. Instead of trying to complete 50-yard bombs, throw swing passes and let your receivers use their top-fuel speed to find the end zone.
It worked. Hybrid back Parris Campbell turned a short pass into a 74-yard catch-and-run touchdown. This after dropping a long pass in the end zone minutes earlier. Then Johnnie Dixon followed suit, turning a short catch into a 59-yard TD. Dixon, like Campbell, had a glaring drop minutes earlier.
Will the short/long passing attack strategy work against Oklahoma when the Buckeyes open at home on Sept. 9? It better, because the Sooners will see how Barrett and the receivers otherwise struggled and plan a way to stop the short stuff. Don’t be misled. Yes, Barrett was 20 of 35 for 304 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, but the passing game was not entirely crisp or creative.
Good thing, then, that freshman J.K. Dobbins turned in the best first game by a freshman running back in school history, rushing for 181 yards to break the record of Maurice Clarett, who rushed for 175 yards against Texas Tech in 2002.
The offense runs well with Dobbins. Will it eventually pass well downfield, too?
“We will get better on the deep ball,” Meyer said.
We shall see. Oklahoma awaits.
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