Rob Oller | Calling Ohio State's plays in a big game is no easy task

Rob Oller
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day looks to call a play against Florida Atlantic Owls in the 4th quarter of their game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on August 31, 2019. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

For the sake of argument, let's say that Ohio State trails Penn State by four points with 2:10 left in today's game. Coach Ryan Day is directing the offense, but he is relying heavily on … you.

Eight stories high in the coaches box, you scan the play sheet to see who should get the ball. So many options. So little time. The Buckeyes have crushed each of their previous 10 opponents by at least 24 points, but for the first time this season, they face the equivalent of being down a run with two out in the bottom of the ninth.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Ohio State was favored by almost 19 points, but the Nittany Lions always seem to play the Buckeyes tough. The previous three games were decided by a total of five points, with OSU winning the last two by one point each.

But here we are, the Buckeyes behind 24-20 and backed up on their 12-yard line. Day wore the headset as quarterbacks coach in the closing minutes of those single-digit wins over Penn State in 2017 and '18, but he has not been in a similar touchdown-or-else situation as a head coach.

Is he ready for it? Are you? How does play-calling work? It's not just eenie-meenie in the moment.

“It's really just figuring out: What (defense) are they in? What plays do we like? And then at that moment, 'All right, guys, let's get the (players) together and talk to them,'” Day said Tuesday.

As the sun drops behind the west side of Ohio Stadium, enough has gone wrong to put the Buckeyes in a late-game jam. Day and his staff must come up with a two-minute plan to save the season.

“It's communication, just trying to figure out, 'Do we need new plays, or are the plays working, and we're just not executing them very well?'” Day said, describing the back-and-forth with coaches. “What you can't do is panic in those moments. You just have to keep swinging away at it and have confidence that it's going to crack.”

Fine, but this egg is hard-boiled. Where to begin?

Under Urban Meyer, the answer was run the quarterback. When in doubt, Meyer turned to Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and even Cardale Jones to convert first downs with their feet.

Justin Fields is a dangerous runner and among the fastest players on the team, but Day has not relied on his sophomore quarterback to bail out the offense by tucking the ball and taking off. Then again, until now no game has been close enough to need it. You believe in sticking with what works, which for the Buckeyes means a mostly intermediate passing game with a healthy dose of J.K. Dobbins.

But with the game on the line, you also feel the need to throw a wrinkle at the Nittany Lions, something you've been saving for a situation such as this. That said, you recall Day's preseason warning: “Don't try something that didn't work well in practice.”

You recheck the play sheet, breathe deeply and …

“If you have too much stuff, all of a sudden you can't execute it very well,” Day said this week. “If you have not enough stuff, then you get into a game, and you're like, 'Oh, man, we don't have anything here.' … Balance is really critical in a game like this. You want to allow them to play fast and not have too much stuff, but have enough ammunition.”

Ammunition is readily available. Fields can run if needed, but coming into the game he had thrown 31 touchdown passes and only one interception. His TD-to-INT ratio gives you the green light to operate an aggressive two-minute offense.

A bonus: Fields has shown no propensity to lock onto a favorite receiver; instead he has spread the wealth across K.J. Hill (39 catches), Chris Olave (37) and Binjimen Victor (27), with three others in double-digit receptions, including Dobbins with 14. Even the tight ends have a combined 16 catches.

“If K.J. Hill is the first read in the progression, or he's open, then he's going to get the ball. If he's not … then it goes on to the next guy,” Day said.

The crowd is revved. Through the press box glass, you hear the roars. First-and-10. You suggest throwing to Olave on a drag route across the middle, normally a no-no in late-game situations because of the risk of interception. But you recall Fields' accuracy and send it in.

“The art of coaching is figuring out: Is (the play) the right thing, that we just need to execute better, or is the play no good?” Day said.

Just as players must execute under pressure, coaches must perform in the clutch.

“You're not really thinking; you're just reacting, you're competing,” Day said of coaching in close games.

The play to Olave works. What next? Dobbins, to keep the defense honest? The clock is ticking. Time to earn your pay.


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