Urban Meyer was asked a question this week that ordinarily would have been absurd, as even the person posing it acknowledged.
Is Ohio State as comfortable facing third-and-7 as it is third-and-1?
The Buckeyes’ coach didn’t scoff at the question. In fact, he said it was a great one. A third-and-7 almost always calls for a pass play. Ohio State’s passing game with Dwayne Haskins Jr. at the helm has flourished this year.
A third-and-1 usually is a run play. That part of the Buckeyes’ offense has surprisingly sputtered too often.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/BuckeyeXtraFans and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“Third-and-1 is tough right now,” Meyer said. “A weakness right now is balance on offense and those short-yardage (runs). We had a couple of close ones Saturday.”
Entering Saturday’s Big Ten home game against Minnesota, No. 3 Ohio State is averaging more than double the yardage on pass plays than runs — 9.7 to 4.7. That is by far the biggest disparity in yardage between pass and run in the Meyer era, which dates to 2012. In the last three games, Ohio State has averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.
Against Indiana last week, J.K. Dobbins was stopped short on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 during a third-quarter possession before Ohio State (6-0, 3-0) finally broke open the game.
It’s not as if Dobbins and Mike Weber are slouches; they are as talented a running back tandem as Ohio State has had at one time. The offensive line is inexperienced in spots but loaded with size and strength and, the Buckeyes believe, underrated athleticism.
So it’s a bit of a mystery why the running game hasn’t been consistently good, though the fact that Haskins isn’t the running quarterback that predecessor J.T. Barrett was certainly has contributed to the downturn.
But Ohio State players and coaches said there are other factors, as well.
“Sometimes it’s just too many people in the box,” senior right tackle Isaiah Prince said. “And from time to time, somebody on the O-line misses a block or a runner misses the hole.
“I think the run game can definitely use some work. You’re never perfect. There are always thing you can improve on. It is hard to run the ball. I think a lot of defenses are worried about Mike and J.K. because they are two dynamic runners, so they usually load the box against us.”
Given the passing game’s success, one would think that defenses would scheme to stop that first. But offensive coordinator Ryan Day agreed with Prince.
“There are constantly extra guys in there, which has opened the pass,” Day said.
Minnesota (3-2, 0-2) might present an interesting challenge. The Golden Gophers are ranked 21st in total defense nationally, though that is misleading. Their numbers are skewed by nonconference victories over outmatched opponents New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami University. The Gophers gave up 42 points at Maryland and 48 at home to Iowa in their two Big Ten games.
Still, Meyer described Minnesota’s defense as outstanding. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, however, wasn’t buying Meyer’s assessment.
“Well, when you give up 90 points in the last two games against Big Ten opponents, I wouldn’t consider it outstanding right now,” Fleck said.
But he did take some solace in that Iowa ran for only 106 yards on 40 carries last week, a 2.7-yard average. For the season, Minnesota is yielding 4.2 yards per carry.
Minnesota’s secondary is young and has been ravaged by injuries, the most notable a season-ending left foot injury to safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the son of the former Buckeyes star cornerback. The Gophers’ offense also is inexperienced, with starting quarterback Zack Annexstad, a freshman walk-on, going through the expected growing pains. Those are big reasons why Ohio State is a 29-point favorite.
But as the weather turns in the second half of the season, passing will be more difficult. The temperature against Minnesota is expected to be in the 50s, 30 degrees cooler than last week’s game against the Hoosiers. Soon, it won’t be good enough to rely solely on the passing game for explosive plays.
Dobbins’ longest run this year is only 21 yards.
“I’m really anxious to get him out (in the open field),” Meyer said. “We’re big-play in the pass game, but haven’t had the big play in the run game like we have in the past. We’re working on that, and we have the right guys to do it.”
Added Prince, “That’s something we have definitely focused on more this week — improving the run game. That’s something we’re going to need down the stretch against really good teams, especially for a team like Minnesota.”