For Ohio State, Michigan State's 2021 offense could be one to emulate
Ryan Day doesn’t need any help coaching offense. That much is pretty obvious. Ohio State has led the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense each of his 4 years in charge.
But due to the personnel the Buckeyes will and won’t have at their disposal this fall, one can’t help but wonder if he’ll consider a tweak this year.
The Buckeyes are still equipped to be the Big Ten’s most explosive offense in 2022. But the path to get there could be with a run-pass distribution more like what we saw from Michigan State last season.
The wide receiver void
Transitioning from Justin Fields to a redshirt freshman quarterback would have come with more than a few hiccups at most programs. For the most part, and certainly after September, Ohio State was able to avoid them with CJ Stroud.
That’s largely because Stroud had the luxury of working with 3 of the top 15 wide receivers in all of college football. And even that’s a fairly liberal interpretation. Given the season Jameson Williams had after transferring from Ohio State to Alabama, it’s probable Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were all top-10 targets.
Day, who is no dummy, played to those strengths.
The Buckeyes passed on 55.7% of their snaps last season.
And based on what we saw in the Rose Bowl, it was reasonable to expect more of the same this season. With Olave and Wilson sitting out, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Ebuka stepped in against Utah like their absence was no big thing.
Harrison had 6 catches for 71 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Ebuka added 3 grabs for 46 yards in the dramatic win over the Utes.
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But in Ohio State’s spring game, there were signs that replacing Olave and Wilson might not be so easy over the long haul. Ebuka had a drop, and Harrison had just 1 reception despite Stroud targeting him 5 times.
It’s foolhardy to read too much into a spring game, obviously. But even in that more relaxed atmosphere, Smith-Njigba still looked like Smith-Njigba, catching 2 passes for 39 yards and a score.
Even if it’s subtle, there figures to be a downturn in Ohio State’s receiving corps this season. But the backfield might be solid enough to overcome that issue.
A loaded backfield
Last season, Michigan State rode the best running back in college football to a top 10 finish. But even though Kenneth Walker III led all Power 5 runners with 1,636 yards, the Spartans did not have a 1-dimensional offense.
The Spartans ran the ball 54.4% of the time, yet still finished 3rd in the Big Ten with 27 touchdown passes. For Michigan State’s roster, it was an ideal balance.
And even if Ohio State doesn’t quite match that percentage of runs this year, it feels like a winning formula.
Though most of the preseason attention will go to Stroud’s attempt to bring home the Heisman Trophy, running back TreVeyon Henderson is a candidate that should not be ignored. And his ability could well be what gives the Buckeyes the balance to get back to the College Football Playoff.
Thanks in part to Ohio State’s passing prowess, Day was fairly cautious with Henderson last year. Henderson was 8th in the Big Ten with 14.1 carries per game as a freshman. Despite that relative limitation, he finished 4th in rushing (1,255 yards) and 3rd in touchdowns (15).
Henderson is good enough to play the role Walker did last season — which is to say, about 75 more carries over the course of the season.
But he also might not need to, because it certainly looks like he’s going to have some help.
Miyan Williams, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 71 carries a year ago, was Ohio State’s best offensive player in the spring game. He was credited with 101 yards on 15 carries.
Given his bowling ball frame — 5-foot-8, 225 pounds — Williams gives Ohio State a solid thunder-and-lightning combination.
The other running back in last year’s freshman class, Evan Pryor, also looked strong with 9 carries for 62 yards in the spring game. Pryor also showed his chops catching the ball out of the backfield with a nice 35-yard reception.
This backfield doesn’t quite have the same star power as the 2021 receivers. But it’s conceivable the Buckeyes have 3 of the 10 best backs in the Big Ten in their backfield.
Great offenses are tailored to their talent. And for Day’s first 4 seasons, that has meant quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Ohio State certainly still has that combination in play with Stroud and Smith-Njigba.
But in terms of depth, this season may be the first time in Day’s tenure where the backfield might outweigh the receiving corps. (The Buckeyes did run more than they threw in 2019, but Fields was averaging 10 carries per game, which is an element Stroud will not be adding.)
It will be interesting to see whether Day tweaks his playbook accordingly. Based on how well he has adjusted to different styles of quarterback, it seems very likely that will be the case.