Passing propensity may soften run blocking

Rob Oller
Minnesota defensive back Jacob Huff wraps up Ohio State running back Mike Weber after a fourth-quarter rush. The Buckeyes' ground game was once again held in check Saturday. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

They watched and wondered, these 70-year-olds whose hair matches the color of the helmets they used to wear.

Only 92 yards rushing against Minnesota? These former Buckeyes once gained that much in a single series. They know how to run block. Or did, 50 years ago as offensive linemen playing on Ohio State’s 1968 national championship team that averaged 301.8 yards rushing.

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But this? This was more like run blockage — a plugged-up rushing attack that goes against decades of Ohio State’s identity as a physical run team. As coach Urban Meyer put it after a 30-14 win Saturday over Minnesota, “We have to continue to have that edge that Ohio State’s had for years and years and years and we’ve always had.”

Except not this year. Not yet. And it’s been hard to watch, especially for former players who contributed to OSU’s reputation as a team that could block anyone.

Alan Jack, a starting guard on the 1968 national title team, watched from inside the Horseshoe as Ohio State struggled against the Golden Gophers. (Members of the ’68 team were honored during the game on the 50th anniversary of that 10-0 season.)

“It needs some improvement,” Jack said of OSU’s run blocking, careful not to pile on. “Things change so much in football, so I’m not sure what’s going on. But they’re not very good.”

No, they’re not. This was the second consecutive Saturday the run game was less than stellar. Last week it was 154 yards on the ground against Indiana, but at least the 3.2 yards per-rush average was not horrendous. Against Minnesota, the Buckeyes averaged 2.9 yards, the first time they finished below 3.0 since a loss to Virginia Tech in 2014.

What’s wrong? It’s not like the linemen lack talent. As Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson explained it, “We’ve got good guys.”

But are they too good, as in too nice? Just asking. My sense is it’s more a muscle-memory glitch than manhood issue. When a team throws the ball as much as these Buckeyes — 44 attempts each of the past two games — the tendency is to morph into pass blockers who focus more on protecting the quarterback than opening holes for running backs.

At halftime, I spoke to a former Ohio State coach who thought it possible that so much pass blocking has caused the offensive line to lose some aggressiveness.

Wilson did not disagree.

“You can scheme it up and talk about being outnumbered (in the box), but still running the ball is a little bit of an attitude,” he said. “The concern always of the really good teams, no matter if you run the ball or throw it, is to be physical.”

Technique also has something to do with it, which comes down to coaching.

“These guys are good pass blockers,” Jack said. “But sometimes it can be difficult to pass and run block. We used to put more weight on our hands, but in (pass blocking) they’re in the habit of backing up, which takes away from run blocking.”

There also is the issue of Ohio State’s tight ends not blocking up to snuff. Wilson made sure to mention that “When you’re not running the ball, people say, ‘Oh, it’s the O-line.’ No, not always. Sometimes it’s the tight ends and perimeter guys.”

Whatever the explanation, the Buckeyes need to run block better or risk becoming typecast offensively.

“Really good teams make you play with your left hand,” Wilson said. “And you’ve got to be able to go to the other hand. Down the stretch, in Big Ten weather, we need two hands. To be a champion you have to throw the ball like we are, but also have to find the consistency and toughness to run the ball.”

Do these Buckeyes have the necessary toughness? Time to show it.


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