Lane Kiffin bringing Florida Atlantic into the Horseshoe, where Ryan Day will run the show for the first time as a full-time head coach, offers a tailor-made opportunity to talk about the importance of play-calling and how it will work this season at Ohio State.
Lest anyone forget, Kiffin’s play-calling in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal factored heavily into Ohio State defeating Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Kiffin called plays for the Crimson Tide.
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Alabama led 14-6 at the end of the first quarter when Kiffin, who was offensive coordinator under Nick Saban, went away from what was working.
Tailback Derrick Henry was averaging 8.0 yards on seven carries when he became the forgotten man. The sophomore did not touch the ball from late in the first quarter to the five-minute mark of the third. During that dark stretch, the Crimson Tide saw a 21-6 lead become a 27-21 deficit. Henry resurfaced late in the third quarter and into the fourth with six more carries for an average of 6.5 yards, but it was too little, too late. The Tide fell behind 42-28 with three minutes left and had to throw to try to close the gap.
Henry finished with 95 yards on 13 attempts for a 7.3 average, numbers that were not lost on Bama fans, who lit up social media with attacks against Kiffin and Saban. Twitter rants included some version of “We shoulda run Henry more, you bleepity-bleeps!”
Urban Meyer, who coached the Buckeyes, did not recall Henry hurting Ohio State badly, but remembers another play-calling oddity that cost Alabama.
“That’s shocking,” Meyer said of Henry’s lack of work after the early success, which included a 25-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. “I do remember we had a short punt and they had great field position and tried a little bit of a trick play and we intercepted it — Vonn Bell intercepted — and that changed the whole thing.”
Kiffin’s head-scratching play-calling was not the only factor in Ohio State’s win, but it shows how X’s and O’s contribute to W’s and L’s. Consider Holy Buckeye, the 37-yard touchdown pass from Craig Krenzel to Michael Jenkins that gave Ohio State a 10-6 win over Purdue in 2002.
Coach Jim Tressel seemingly stuck a fork in Tresselball, going against his play-it-safe philosophy by calling a pass — King 64 Y Shallow Swap — on fourth-and-1 with 1:36 left. But it turns out the call was safe, after all. The Buckeyes had practiced the pass play hundreds of times, which gave Tressel confidence to try it.
Every call must be executed, however, and Krenzel came through in the clutch by finding Jenkins on a late read. Tight end Ben Hartsock had been covered underneath, and the running backs stayed in to block.
Was it the right call? Yes, because it worked. If it had not, then no. That’s just how it goes.
Day will face a sticky play-calling situation at some point this season, perhaps to save a drive if not a game. How will he make his decision? Until kickoff it is game-planning by committee, with Day discussing specific situations with the offensive staff, including passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich and offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Kevin Wilson, who both have experience calling plays — Yurcich at Oklahoma State and Wilson at several stops, including Oklahoma and Northwestern.
“Once we get in the game, we have to find the right plays and the right rhythm,” Day said. “But Kevin’s always been involved in that. Mike will be involved with play-calling. But at the end of the day, I’ll be the one making the call.”
Not always. Wilson explained that quarterback Justin Fields will have something of a “green light” to audible into better looks.
“When the quarterback checks a play now, the defense can’t change, so (Fields) will have an opportunity … have several plays to make us right and make us look good,” Wilson said.
Otherwise, the buck stops with Day.
“It’s the competing part of it,” he said of why he enjoys calling plays. “I’ve always loved to compete. And I like to be in control.”
Day thinks the importance of play-calling is both overrated and underplayed.
“So much of it is how do you pick the right plays that fit, but then how do you teach them on Tuesday and Wednesday so the guys are ready to play?” he said. “You can pick any play you want, but how do they execute them, because they have to be trained to react. You’re not always going to get the exact look you thought and drew up.”
The trick is making plays seem simple to the offense but complicated for the defense.
“That’s when you’ve got an edge,” Day said.
You just need to take advantage of it. Or not. Ask Kiffin about that.