Ohio State: Should the Buckeyes become Oklahoma 2.0?
After a fairly rudderless first two and a half games, Ohio State finally showed flashes of an identity in the second half of its win over a surprisingly stubborn Tulsa team. To wit, TreVeyon Henderson is the next great Buckeyes running back, and State can feature him as the centerpiece of its offense, out-grind other B1G foes in the trenches, and win some old-style smash-mouth football.
Or the Buckeyes could do something else.
Three games into the season, the biggest truths about this Ohio State team are these:
- It has a star-filled offense — not just Henderson, but Olave, Wilson, even Stroud. The reserve receivers and running backs would start for 90% of FBS squads.
- It also has a fairly awful defense. It’s not personnel — Ohio State can fight 5-star with 5-star against any conference foe and the vast majority of non-conference foes. Whether it’s something inherent in Kerry Coombs’ and/or Matt Barnes’s defensive scheme, the mesh of personalities, or poor execution, OSU hasn’t done much right. In 11 games under Coombs, OSU has allowed 400+ passing yards 4 times and 200+ rushing yards 3 times. That’s 7 of 11 games in which OSU got gashed one way or the other.
Meanwhile, the inherent issue is this — run-heavy, possession-limiting football is safe and traditional in Columbus. But is limiting possessions the way OSU should go?
As a purely mathematical exercise, in a game between teams of uneven talent (say, OSU and anybody not named Alabama or Clemson, or maybe Georgia now), it is decidedly to the advantage of the more talented team to create more scoring opportunities — have more possessions, take more shots for big plays, generally create more situations where talent trumps scheme or adjustment or film study. If the team with less talent happens to have a mediocre defense, it’s arguably even more likely that the Buckeyes should push down the gas pedal.
OSU has been almost exactly 50/50 in run and pass this year, although the path forward is likely to be more like Saturday, which was 41 rushes to 25 passes, or 62/38 run/pass. But the Buckeyes could decide to go, say, 55/45 or even 60/40 pass. They average 66 plays per game so far. Ideally, with more passes and an increased emphasis on higher tempo, OSU could get to 75ish plays per game. Of those 75, let’s say they go with 40-42 passes and 33-35 runs. Three games into the season, C.J. Stroud is averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt. Meanwhile, TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams are averaging 9.1 and 8.8 yards per carry, respectively. The Buckeyes probably go from 538 yards per game to over 600, and from 38 points per game to somewhere in the mid 40s.
But what about the defense? Here’s the thing. If OSU wanted to roll the dice, it could. Put those elite playmakers in position to make more plays. Blitz, frequently and creatively. Play a more aggressive, gambling mode of pass coverage. Acknowledge that in the process, you will get burnt sometimes. But rather than sit back and play bend-but-don’t-break defense and eat up clock and let opponents run 77 plays a game against you, push your chips to the middle of the table. Sometimes, you’ll lose big. But even when you do, it’s just another chance for your offense to go back to doing what it does.
Meanwhile, imagine the recruiting gains (as if OSU needed them). Offensive players want to play in a system where they’ll get a chance to shine. Defensive players want to play in a system where they have the opportunity to make plays. Nobody comes to campus to sit in soft zone coverage and make safe tackles on 7 yard passes in front of them. The rich could get even richer with a more aggressive, forward-looking offensive system.
Realistically, this probably won’t happen. A 60/40 run-game offense with a dose of play-action is probably the short-term future of OSU football. The defense will allow small gains to try to head off big plays. And you’ll have more close games in the fourth quarter against the Tulsas of the world in the name of not losing another game. It’s safe, it’s reasonable, and it’s what probably happens.
But it doesn’t have to. There is another way.