Lack of running may catch up to Buckeyes
Listen closely. Hear that? It’s the sound of harrumphing. Of hand-wringing. Of … worry.
What, pray tell, is causing all the concern? Ohio State is 7-0, so it can’t be that. The offense ranks second nationally in total yardage. Not that. The defense is 25th in scoring, surrendering a respectable 19.1 points per game. Hard to complain about that. Anything under 21 is a job well done. And only six second-half points allowed the past two games? Impressive.
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In Dwayne Haskins Jr., the Buckeyes have their best pure passer. Simba leads the nation with 28 touchdown passes. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are a dynamic duo at tailback. And don’t forget about coach Urban Meyer, still among the best in the business, who is 27-2 in true road games. That bodes well for Saturday’s prime-time tilt at Purdue.
Yet listen closely and hear how the sky is falling. “Why does 30-14 feel like a loss?” one reader tweeted after Ohio State defeated Minnesota. Another wrote, “Least enjoyable win in years.”
Those comments were not outliers. There is much angst in the air. Maybe it has something to do with exceedingly high expectations. Anything less than covering the spread is a failure.
More likely, it has to do with imbalance. Fans are like foodies, except the obsession is with blended figures instead of flavors. Too much or not enough of one statistic ruins the batch, just as too much (secret ingredient spoiler alert) brown sugar overwhelms my chili recipe.
The Buckeyes are similarly out of whack. The offense that averages 371.4 yards passing is rushing for exactly half of that (185.7), which does not seem overly alarming until checking history.
Over the past 10 seasons, no team that won a national title showed as much discrepancy between passing yardage and rushing yardage as the Buckeyes’ 185.7-yard differential. Of those champions, 2016 Clemson is the closest at 163.6 and 2013 Florida State is next at 112.8. None of the other eight had more than 75 yards separating run and pass.
Although Clemson’s pass-run differential is larger than Florida State’s, the Seminoles more closely resemble the Buckeyes, in that quarterback Jameis Winston was a passer who ran only when absolutely necessary.
Bob Ferrante, who covers Florida State for The Osceola, painted a picture of the 2013 Seminoles’ offense that should sound familiar to Ohio State fans.
“They were very much pass-happy,” Ferrante said. “That was the personnel and what (coach) Jimbo Fisher wanted to do. I remember Winston came out of the gate and was 25 of 27 up at Pittsburgh. It was pass-first, and Jimbo went with running back by committee.”
Ohio State runs a two-tailback subcommittee that takes a back seat to Haskins and his receivers. The Buckeyes have more rushing first downs (78) than nine teams in the Associated Press top 10. But OSU is averaging only 3.1 yards per carry the past three games, in part because defenses are stacking the line of scrimmage to force the Buckeyes to win through the air.
And winning they are. Can it continue? The success of those Florida State and Clemson teams suggests a low run-pass differential is not imperative to winning national titles. But two factors — weather and defense — separate those teams from these Buckeyes.
Clemson never played outside of the South after Oct. 7, so conditions remained suitable for throwing the ball. Florida State never played outside of the South after Sept. 28. As Big Ten weather worsens, the Buckeyes will need to run the ball more effectively.
The second factor again speaks to balance; this time on defense. What allowed Florida State, and to a lesser extent Clemson, to lean on their passing games was dominating defense. The Seminoles ranked No. 1 in points allowed (12.1) and seventh in yardage allowed (281.4). The Tigers ranked 10th in points (18.0) and eighth in yards (311.5).
Ohio State’s defense ranks 58th in yards allowed (369.6), and has allowed 22 plays of 30 or more yards, sixth worst in the nation.
That is not sound defense. More the sound of worry.
Run-pass differential, past 10 national champions
2017 Alabama: 250.6 run; 193.4 pass (57.2)
2016 Clemson: 170.3 run; 333.9 pass (163.6)
2015 Alabama: 199.9 run; 227.1 pass (27.2)
2014 Ohio State: 264.5 run; 247.1 pass (17.4)
2013 Florida State: 203.1 run; 315.9 pass (112.8)
2012 Alabama: 227.5 run; 218 pass (9.5)
2011 Alabama: 214.7 run; 215.2 pass (0.7)
2010 Auburn: 284.8 run; 214.4 pass (70.4)
2009 Alabama: 215.1 run; 187.9 pass (27.2)
2008 Florida: 231.1 run; 213.9 pass (17.2)