Tight ends provide a pathway for Ohio State's red zone success in College Football Playoff

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

In the second quarter of Ohio State’s win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, quarterback Justin Fields rolled outside the pocket to his left.

Moving from one set of hash marks to the other, Fields drew most of the defenders with him.

The movement created an opening down the right side of the field, leaving Jeremy Ruckert alone in coverage. Fields flipped a pass to the 6-foot-5 tight end, who waltzed into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes the lead for good.

Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert (88) celebrates his second-quarter touchdown on a reception from Justin Fields in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. Ruckert caught two TD passes in the game.

It was one of several sequences in last week’s Sugar Bowl when the Buckeyes turned to one of their tight ends in the red zone, relying on their bigger targets to finish their drives.

Ohio State football: 'Hidden' plays that helped Buckeyes beat Clemson

In five trips inside the 20-yard line, the offense scored four touchdowns, with three of them coming on passes completed to tight ends Ruckert, who snagged two, and Luke Farrell, who had one.

The success was in contrast to last season’s semifinal loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl when Ohio State stalled out on its trips inside the Tigers' 20-yard line, when it failed to score a touchdown in three red-zone trips. All three times, the Buckeyes settled for field goals in a 29-23 defeat.

Luke Farrell of Ohio State caught a first-quarter scoring pass on a bullet from Justin Fields, who saw the tight end matched up against a smaller defensive back from Clemson.

In this 2020 season disrupted by COVID-19, there was little precedent for the breakout performance by the OSU tight ends. In six previous games, they had caught three touchdowns, the same number as they finished with Friday.

They had, however, shown some glimpses of their potential in the shortened season. In a win at Penn State on Oct. 31, Ruckert caught a pair of touchdowns inside the red zone.

But in recent weeks, the tight ends had been more like afterthoughts in the passing game, even in the Big Ten championship when the Buckeyes were without leading receiver Chris Olave.

Ruckert and Farrell have been key performers in the Ohio State running game, particularly against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game when they helped spring Trey Sermon to a school-record 331 yards.

But it wasn't until the Sugar Bowl that their moment arrived in the passing game.

“It feels great, but we always say that we're just here to do whatever the team needs to do to win,” Ruckert said. “And I feel like it shows on film every week, that whatever the team needs us to do, whether it's pass protection, run blocking or pass catching, we're ready to do it.

“We're always prepared for it. We always got the ability, we’re just waiting for the moment to come in a game. I feel like it was good for our guys to show what we’re capable of doing.”

While the group had been effective in pass protection and run blocking for much of the fall, the semifinal was the chance to play a more leading role rather than an unsung one.

At times, Fields found Ruckert on a creative play design, such as the throwback pass in the second quarter. On other plays, he used his arm strength to fire a pass toward the bigger-bodied target.

That was the case in the first quarter when he found the 6-foot-6 Farrell covered by cornerback Derion Kendrick, who is 6 inches shorter, for a 8-yard TD strike to tie the score at 14.

“The tight end room has always been a group to rely on,” Ruckert said. “Whether it’s been in the run game or able to go make plays, no moment is too big for us. We've been tested. We’re a veteran group.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

Ohio State vs. Alabama

What: College Football Playoff championship game

When: 8 p.m. Monday  

TV: ESPN  

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)