By Marcus Hartman
What does Ohio State want its offense to be?
“Whatever works” is the obvious answer.
Getting there is sometimes complicated, though, even when Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is considered both an offensive guru and an elite recruiter.
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Meyer has his philosophy. He believes in doing things a certain way. The same is true of offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day.
While these proclivities overlap, they are not identical, and last season featured some hits and misses as the three men worked together to meld their styles into one Ohio State attack.
Meyer said he is leaving the play calls to his assistants on game day this season, but all are involved in game-planning during the week.
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Who has the final say? Sometimes the answer is none of them.
That’s how the Buckeyes ended with 38 pass attempts and 38 runs last week against Tulane despite leading 21-0 in the first quarter and 42-6 at the half.
“A lot of it is how they determine to play us,” Meyer said Monday when asked about his team’s offensive balance. “Teams are still defending us a lot of single coverage. That’s what Tulane did. And we’re at the point where we can execute the passing game pretty high.”
Meyer and Wilson seemed surprised the Green Wave were worried about their two-headed monster at running back, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, more than Dwayne Haskins, the nation’s No. 2 passer in terms of efficiency and touchdowns, but the Buckeyes were ready to react accordingly.
That’s where football truly becomes a chess match, a challenge wherein offensive coaches not only plan what they want to do but must do so while anticipating how their defensive counterparts will try to stop it.
Early in his tenure, Meyer declared his intention to recreate Woody Hayes’ smash-mouth offense despite operating out of spread formations nearly all the time, and the Buckeyes ran the ball nearly 60 percent of the time in his first six seasons in Columbus.
Through four games in 2018, that figure is down to 53, but it’s not because the Scarlet and Gray have fallen out of love with power football.
“What’s amazing is the way Dwayne has thrown the ball, they’re still putting everyone up there to stop the run,” Wilson said. “They’re going to challenge you to protect and take shots and win some one on ones.”
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Haskins and the offensive line have passed those early tests, but the Ohio State coaches know they must be able to run the ball consistently — especially on third and short, in the red zone and late in games.
In one sense, this is a chance for the Ohio State offensive line to assert itself. The surest way to have a strong running game is to have five guys up front who can block anyone — but what about when there are too many to block?
In the past, Ohio State’s first answer would be to let the quarterback run the ball. Inserting him into the running game changes the math for the defense by providing an extra player to account for.
Haskins, though, is not the runner predecessors J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller were.
Ross Fulton, who analyzes Ohio State Xs and Os for BuckeyeGrove.com, pointed out the Buckeyes have kept the same base running play — called "tight zone" — but varied how it is blocked.
Rather than using a read by the quarterback to hold the backside defensive end, “They are using the tight end to block the backside defensive end on their base ‘tight zone’ play or having the tight end align to the same side as the halfback and base block the end,” Fulton said.
They can also have the tight end cut back across the formation to block the backside end (a play known as “split zone”) or use the tight end as a lead blocker.
Ohio State has also dialed up “counter trey,” an old power football standby that calls for the backside guard and tackle to pull around to lead the running back through the hole.
And of course sometimes when faced with a loaded box, the Buckeyes have just chosen to throw the ball more.
The lineman doing the heavy lifting after almost every Ohio State touchdown is Thayer Munford, who said he's just so hyped after scores he's the first one there to lift the RBs and WRs https://t.co/SnUR2X28FC pic.twitter.com/vEJosbYsxO— David Jablonski (@DavidPJablonski) September 27, 2018
Penn State presents the next challenge for this revamped Ohio State attack.
The Nittany Lions were the first team to crack the code four years ago when the Ohio State offense first really got rolling under Barrett in 2014.
They chose to attack the line of scrimmage with their front seven (and sometimes eight) while playing the rest of their defenders deep to take away the long bomb, a strategy many teams since copied.
Penn State may continue going that route this weekend, but Haskins presents a different challenge because so far he has consistently hit the short and intermediate passes that strategy opens up.
Will he continue doing that Saturday night?
Ohio State at Penn State, 7:30 p.m., ABC, 1410
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