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Can Ohio State recreate the magic of 2014?

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NCAA Football: Ohio State at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago our own Bill Connelly wrote up a piece on Ohio State’s weaknesses, such as they are, with an eye towards whether any opponents could potentially exploit them.

Amongst the weak spots that have also caught my eye from watching this team were...

1. If you can force them to pass, they might not be able to.

...and...

2. The big gains on the ground are minimal.

Both of these are unquestionably true and together they help paint a picture of how a team might approach stopping this Buckeye team. Of course they’d still need to score some points....

The J.T. Barrett Buckeye offense

This team is defined by a pounding run game that features QB options on the vast majority of their snaps. Here’s a snapshot of J.T. Barrett’s weekly performances within the offense this season:

You’ll notice that against the better defenses on Ohio State’s schedule (Tulsa, OU, Indiana), Barrett ended up carrying a much heavier load on the ground and wasn’t exactly explosive. On the year he’s handled 28% of Ohio State’s carries and produced 21% of their rushing yards. He’s an effective running QB, and at 6’2” 220 he’s big enough to handle this load without breaking down, but he doesn’t have Braxton Miller’s breakaway speed.

The only problem with Ohio State’s style of option run game is that opponents have some say over who carries the ball and where they run it. They mitigate this somewhat by mixing in inverted zone-read plays where the QB takes the inside track and the RB give goes wide, or by mixing in power-read which has the QB run power behind a lead blocker while the RB’s option is more of a outside zone path.

You can find all of these plays detailed and explained here.

If Ohio State wants a particular ballcarrier to have the ball, it’s hard to stop them from achieving that result. However, the defense still has choices on what they want to defend against a given concept and can force certain reads from Barrett.

The Indiana Hoosiers typically looked to spill plays outside against both power-read and zone-read plays by using their DEs to both step down into open gaps as well as disrupt TEs or OL releasing downfield aiming to pick off linebackers. They only did “okay” in this regard, often failing to get the playside linebacker and defensive end on the same page.

When Curtis Samuel is getting the ball running out to the edge it only takes a moment of hesitation to allow a crease he can exploit. Overall Indiana did reasonably well and the Hoosiers are only in their first year under new DC Tom Allen’s defensive scheme.

If you’ve watched the Buckeyes much this season you’ll notice that a significant part of their strategy is simply moving guys around into different formations and running the same option plays in order to pick up easy yards when the defense doesn’t know how to line up and play.

A defense that’s more confident and disciplined in their spread-option tactics could grievously reduce the yardage that Ohio State is accustomed to gaining from their style. We’ve seen it before. We may see it on Saturday night.

So if the Buckeye run game were stopped or slowed?

An opponent that knew how to line up against Urban Meyer’s arsenal of formations and variations on option run schemes would undoubtedly have a chance to force this particular team into some obvious passing situations.

The Buckeyes have had 40 TD drives so far this season and 14 of them (35%) required 10 plays or more. They’re very used to having to grind their way down the field with the run game and if you stopped up the works they’d be forced to rely more on their passing game.

Venturing back up to our handy chart, we notice that against the three toughest opponents on Ohio State’s schedule that Barrett threw 63 passes for 394 yards at 6.3 yards per attempt with five TDs and a sole INT. He’s been good at avoiding turnovers, though that may be partly due to simply not throwing many passes in the first place, but simply hasn’t been that threatening throwing the ball. If not for the four touchdown passes he threw to big Noah Brown in the red zone against Oklahoma, those numbers wouldn’t be too impressive either.

This has always been the hangup with J.T. Barrett in the Ohio State offense, his lack of potency in the passing game to ease pressure off the run game. Take note of this pass against Indiana when Urban Meyer tried to dial up some play-action to punish the Hoosiers for getting too nosy with their boundary safety:

A team like Ohio State likes to spend their time repping the run game and their option reads. They don’t want to spend precious practice hours nailing down the passing game and all the different ways to beat a coverage, they just want to be able to take advantage when an opponent is cheating numbers inside to load the box. Much of the Urban Meyer dropback passing game consists of empty formations for this reason, to make the reads simple and quick.

On this play, they clearly have their receiver isolated on the corner but there are two problems. The first is that the coverage is actually quite good, the corner is on the receivers inside hip and there isn’t a great deal of separation. A team that really worked their passing game would build in a route adjustment in which the receiver would run a comeback, or else utilize the back shoulder fade.

At any rate, if this ball is going to be thrown it needs to either be leading the WR back towards the sideline and be dropped in so that the corner can’t make a play on the ball, or else thrown to the back shoulder. Instead, Barrett throws it short and inside and is nearly picked off. Indeed, with a poorer effort from his WR this would have been an INT.

While he’s a great practitioner of their option run game, Barrett isn’t terribly explosive and can only help plod ahead in long, sustained drives or else free up a more explosive runner like Curtis Samuel to grab yardage in chunks. In the passing game he’s pretty good at throwing it up for Noah Brown in the red zone but he’s less proficient at punishing defenses down the field for loading the box between the 20s.

In 2014, it looked like the Buckeyes were sunk when they were forced to trot big Cardale Jones out there at QB. Instead, it turned out that a running game featuring Zeke Elliott and minimal QB option was still devastating, and even more so when the QB could fling the ball down the field to vertical threats like Devin Smith. Much like he doesn’t have Braxton Miller’s explosiveness on the ground, Barrett also doesn’t have Cardale Jones’ ability to generate explosive plays throwing down the field.

The 2016 Buckeye offense doesn’t have the same ability as the 2014 squad to simultaneously stress different areas of the field. They’re a bit more like this year’s Tennessee Volunteers team, powerful but often plodding.

Their offense hasn’t had any major problems yet, and their defense has been suffocating, but it doesn’t look like this Ohio State team will quite be able to recreate the formula of that elite 2014 squad and roll through the Big 10 and playoffs.