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The unexplored ceiling of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ offense

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J.T. Barrett was a steady leader for the Buckeyes but there’s a chance that the Ohio State offense takes off with a different skill set plugged in behind center.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

J.T. Barrett IV had a pretty impressive career in Columbus, OH. As a four year starter (basically) he had a record of 38-6 that included a 9-3 mark against teams ranked in the top 10 and the all-important 4-0 resume against rival Michigan. However, despite owning many of Ohio State’s records by default he will probably never go down amongst the all-time great QBs in scarlet and gray because of his postseason resume.

Barrett went 2-1 in the postseason but the wins came in the Fiesta and Cotton Bowls against Notre Dame and USC respectively while Ohio State’s trips to the playoffs either didn’t include him (the 2014 national title) or were marked by failure (shutout by Clemson in the 2016 semifinal). Barrett finished his career at Ohio State with over 9k passing yards, over 3200 rushing yards, and 147 total touchdowns. He had eight games in which he threw for 300 yards or more, eight games where he rushed for 100 yards or more, and three games where he threw for at least 200 yards AND ran for at least 100 yards. It was an impressive career, but watching Ohio State in 2017 it was hard to shake the impression that this offense might be better in 2018 after Barrett had moved on.

Under Wisconsin’s magnifying lens

Barrett completed 12 of 26 passes for 211 yards in the 2017 Big 10 championship game against Wisconsin while playing on a knee that had just received surgery. He averaged 8.1 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and two interceptions (one of which was returned for a Badger TD). He also ran the ball 19 times for 60 yards at 3.2 ypc with another score. It was a quintessential J.T. Barrett performance, including a solid 7-15 third/fourth down conversion rate on plays where Barrett was either throwing or running for the marker.

A breakdown of the film and the gameplan by the Buckeyes and the Badgers respectively says that while Barrett did enough to lead Ohio State to victory, his offense was conceding some advantages that had a lot to do with his lack of ability as a QB.

For instance, many of the early drives by Ohio State were defined by attempts from the Buckeyes to use unbalanced spread sets to attack Wisconsin for playing their base 3-4 personnel against those spread sets.

Longtime fans of this column may recognize this alignment by Wisconsin from my breakdown of “the greatest Texas HS defense in history.” The Badgers rolled their safety over and played “cloud quarters” on the boundary with the OLB serving as the force corner and the cornerback dropping back as the deep 12 safety. To the field the sam linebacker stayed on the edge and the SS rolled over and played as a nickel while the FS rolled over and played as the SS.

As a result, the Badgers maintained having seven guys in the box with OLBs forcing the ball and keeping it funneled inside to their DL and ILBs. Ohio State tried to overcome this by using Barrett as the featured runner and gaining a blocker (the RB) but the ball is maintained in tight confines and weak side LB Ryan Connelly is able to scrape over and make the stop.

Running Barrett via the option or direct snap runs like this has always been the Buckeye trump card when teams load the box but the problem for Ohio State over the years has been that some opponents could beat blocks up front and limit those plays. Or, even when they didn’t, Barrett has never been explosive enough to really punish teams for loading the box. The better solution is to throw the ball, Ohio State worked in that approach early as well and basically broke even.

They caught Wisconsin with a 4x1 unbalanced set when the Badgers didn’t get enough deep help in the middle of the field to stick with Terry McLaurin:

The Buckeyes had figured out that the boundary corner was the deep 12 safety and would help on deep crossing routes so they motioned the H-back wide to get him out of the picture. Then Wisconsin makes a mistake (aided by the Buckeyes’ use of tempo here) with the field cornerback playing tight man coverage on the outside receiver, who’s ineligible by alignment, while leaving S Joe Ferguson to split two verticals and inevitably get beat. Six points for Ohio State!

Then on the next drive...

Not a great throw or decision by Barrett, but also an instance of the Badgers winning the chess match and having a good call for thwarting that play design.

If you remove those two plays from his stat sheet, Barrett completed 11-24 passes for 127 yards at 5.3 yards per attempt with one TD and one INT. Also notable, another 54 yards and the other TD came on a play where the Badgers blitzed the SS and then missed a tackle on a bubble screen. It was a pretty pedestrian performance, to say the least, and again this was against a Badger team matching three-wide sets with base 3-4 personnel and saving their nickel package for obvious passing downs.

The Ohio State victory was enabled by the explosiveness of their skill players and powered by those two big passing plays and two runs by star freshman RB J.K. Dobbins:

In the first example the DE is left unblocked and gets too deep in the backfield to safely take away the cutback lane which is made gaping by the downhill push of the Buckeye OL.

In the second, LG Michael Jordan’s double team on the nose shoves him over a gap and then Jordan releases up to the LB and seals him out of now vacant A-gap. Dobbins fires through in an instant and gets the Buckeyes in FG range. It should be noted that when Dobbins broke through the wash against a loaded box it meant big trouble since he was much harder to run down in the open field than Barrett.

In either instance Barrett is doing nothing more than threatening the perimeter with a quick bubble screen or a zone-read keeper. When Ohio State was aiming to feature their skill players they could out-execute opponents and inflict painful, explosive plays with their speed. When the game was on Barrett’s shoulders as either a runner or a passer, the offense was not nearly as threatening.

Dwayne Haskins and the new era of Buckeye football

Ohio State is losing two-year starting LT Jamarco Jones (a two-time All-B1G player) and also four-year starter Billy Price (too many awards and recognitions to list) but returning four OL that have started multiple games including All-B1G players at guard Michael Jordan and tackle Isaiah Prince. They’re also returning both J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber at RB along with the top four wide receivers.

At QB it seems the only reason there’s even a close contest at this point is that Joe Burrow is on track to graduate this spring and can transfer if Urban Meyer doesn’t convince him that he’s on track to grow into a starter. If not for that bit of player leverage held by Burrow it’d already be assumed that fellow RS sophomore Dwayne Haskins, who backed up Barrett and replaced him during Ohio State’s win over Michigan, is going to win the job.

Haskins at his best is not even as strong a runner as Barrett but at worst he’s still capable of pulling the ball on a zone read and doing some damage in the open field:

But he brings a totally new dimension to the Buckeye offense with his arm, which is vastly superior to Barrett’s in terms of velocity and accuracy either on the move or throwing outside the hash marks.

With this RB tandem behind this OL combined with the explosive speed that the Buckeyes have at wide receiver, they really don’t (or shouldn’t) want a QB who’s main strength is running the ball on the option or direct snaps. What they should want is a guy that can threaten defenses on the perimeter and down the field with his arm, as Haskins can:

This also happens to be the way that new OC Kevin Wilson prefers to utilize his QB, as reflected by his Oklahoma and Indiana offenses or his recruitment of Lake Travis pocket passer Matthew Baldwin in the 2018 class.

Ohio State will need to replace Billy Price’s play and direction at center, which after back to back years of having Remington-winning play at center (Pat Elfin 2016, Price 2017) is no small matter. They’ll also need Haskins to grow in his understanding of the offense in order to avoid some of the bad decisions he made in spot duty last year and to keep the offense on track between hand-offs to Dobbins and Weber. Barrett was a great team leader, if a limited passer and not particularly explosive as a runner.

However, if they can get strong and veteran play inside from multi-year program guys like Haskins and potential starting center Brady Taylor, the 2018 Buckeyes may prove capable of attacking the full field in a way that Ohio State opponents haven’t had to contend with in the J.T. Barrett era. The last time that happened, Ohio State won a national championship