OSU seeks balance by reviving run game
Anyone can see that something isn’t adding up with the 2018 Ohio State offense.
In total, it is off to the greatest start in school history. The average of 555.5 yards per game was No. 2 in the nation headed into this weekend (which the Buckeyes had off) and way out in front of the OSU season record of 511.9 set in 2013.
But it could better than that. Much better.
Although Dwayne Haskins Jr. seems intent on obliterating the school’s passing marks — he is averaging 350.1 yards per game while tossing a nation-leading 30 touchdown passes — the running game has slowed to a crawl.
Which gets back to the math of football theory: An effective passing game is supposed to spread out a defense, which should make it easier to block for the running game.
Then throw into the equation Ohio State has three starters back from a line that launched the Big Ten’s No. 1 running attack last year (243.2) with two running backs who have had 1,000-yard seasons: J.K. Dobbins (freshman school-record 1,403 in 2017) and Mike Weber (1,096 in 2016).
On paper, the OSU run game should be rolling. Instead, the line seems to let a defender run free every other play, with disruptive penetration the norm, and Dobbins or Weber rarely reach the second level unfettered. For example, Weber’s 21-yard run against Indiana is the team’s longest the past four games.
Those failures caught up with the Buckeyes in the 49-20 loss at Purdue eight days ago. So as the offensive coaches met with players and tried to sort it out over the past week, co-coordinator Ryan Day said, the intent was to bring the run game back from life support while not losing the passing pizzazz.
“We talked about how we were one of the most explosive offenses in college football, and statistically we’re one of the most productive,” Day said. “But we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to win in situational football … because if we can solve that, we’re really where we want to be.”
Because as good as the offense has been in some areas, such as No. 2 nationally in passing offense and No. 8 in third-down conversions (49.2 percent), it has been woefully lacking in others, such as 116th in red zone efficiency (just 22 touchdowns in 37 trips inside the 20-yard line) and 69th in rushing (171.8-yard average). That last stat is misleading, though, because the average dipped to just 110.2 over the past four games.
Day did not put the blame on Haskins being a modest run threat compared to predecessor J.T. Barrett, but it’s obvious defenses are laser-focused on the running back.
“They’re always loading up the box in the run game, no matter what level you’re at, what offense you’re in … to stop the run,” Day said. “But when you don’t have as much of a (run) threat at quarterback, then sometimes the numbers work against you.
“But then that opens up the pass. So when it’s time to call a pass, and they put the guys in (the tackle box), and we throw and catch the ball, we look like a hundred bucks.”
Haskins has completed 71.1 percent of his passes. But despite setting school records with 47 completions on 73 attempts for 470 yards a week ago at Purdue, he and his receivers couldn’t hook up on at least three chances for TD passes in the first three quarters that might have reset the game’s momentum.
The Buckeyes needed those passing plays because, following the increasing trend set the previous two weeks in sluggish wins over otherwise outmanned Indiana and Minnesota, the run game wound up axle deep in the mud at Purdue.
Before calling a tow truck, though, there seem to be a few options to get the rush back on the road, such as:
• The favorite among fans, occasionally insert elusive backup quarterback Tate Martell in the red zone to run the zone-read option, previously the bread-and-butter of the run game.
• Put Dobbins and Weber in the backfield at the same time with Haskins in the shotgun, creating an option threat or providing a lead blocker.
• Put Haskins under center with a single back, split backs or an I formation that brings to bear an instant power threat. Hey, Purdue jumped into the I without skipping a beat.
• Forget most of the run-pass options. When the situation calls for it, just line up, fire out and run straight at some unsuspecting soul.
Day gave no hint about what schemes might change, but he did restate the objective.
“We’re not saying we’re just a throwing team,” Day said. “So we have to be able to throw the football, but we also have to be able to run the ball.”