The question stopped Urban Meyer in his tracks.
Is the Ohio State offense more comfortable on third-and-7 than third-and-1?
“That’s a great question,” Meyer said after pausing to think about it. “Third-and-1 is tough right now. That’s another weakness. So a weakness right now is balance on offense and those short-yardage (plays). We had a couple of close ones Saturday.”
Ohio State faced third-and-2 or third-and-1 three times last week against Indiana and converted two. The Buckeyes also faced fourth-and-1 four times and went three for four.
That came a week after similar results at then-No. 9 Penn State. Ohio State was 2-for-3 facing third-and-3 or less against the Nittany Lions and converted one of two tries on fourth-and-1.
That is not exactly terrible, but it is something to keep in mind as Ohio State builds toward what it hopes is another Big Ten championship season and eyes a return to the College Football Playoff.
In the postseason — or perhaps starting with the annual showdown with Michigan to end the regular season — the margin for error shrinks and weaknesses are inevitably exposed and exploited.
The ability to grind out a yard whenever needed is a point of pride for football coaches and fans alike — especially those who (like Meyer) grew up admiring Woody Hayes’ three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust teams — and it was rarely a concern for Ohio State previously in the Meyer era.
His initial Ohio State teams were experts at the ground-and-pound style. Even though his teams have emphasized the pass more the past two seasons, Meyer still had an ace in the hole when it came to short yardage — the running quarterback.
“Used to be, when (we had) the dual-threat stuff — I don’t want to say it was automatic — but it was pretty good,” Meyer said.
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The 2018 squad is on pace to be the best throwing team in Ohio State history, but wouldn’t it be ironic if the season comes down to a failed fourth-and-1 in November, December or January?
The Buckeyes are still converting more than failing in those situations, so it’s not time to panic yet, but Meyer acknowledged all options are on the table when it comes to turning short-yardage into an opportunity again instead of a challenge.
“We’ve talked about everything,” he said when asked about using more two-back sets rather than the typical one-back, three receiver lineup that is Ohio State’s base. “That’s not the issue. The issue is everyone is packed in there on us so somehow we have to get out of that.”
Throwing the ball is one option if teams are going to continue trying to outnumber the Buckeyes at the point of attack.
Ohio State did that once last week, and it worked. Dwayne Haskins hit Binjimin Victor for a 13-yard gain to move the chains on third-and-2.
At Penn State, the Buckeyes also tried running outside more and found some success, including a 4-yard J.K. Dobbins touchdown run.
“Those are all things we’re talking about,” Meyer said.
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Of course, there is also the chance Ohio State could return to the old reliable and mix in Tate Martell on short yardage.
The Buckeyes’ backup quarterback doesn’t have Haskins’ rifle arm, but he is a better runner.
When J.T. Barrett was backing up Cardale Jones in 2015, Barrett found his way back into the lineup as a red-zone quarterback, so a specialty package is not something without precedent.
“Tate’s a very dynamic player,” Meyer said. “Those are (discussions) we have every two hours.”
Then again, the answer might be more physical than it is mental. Coaches love to scheme their way out of problems, but sometimes the best answer in football is to knock the guys in front of you out of the way.
“We gotta do a better job as coaches and better job, obviously, with players, just executing the run game,” Meyer said. “Because it’s not always that. It’s not always a loaded box.”