Ohio State football: Coaches evaluating run game options

COLUMBUS -- With the Ohio State offense having a harder time scoring points the last two weeks, potential fixes were a big topic of conversation to start the week.

The best easiest solution might be best: Run the ball more.

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The Buckeyes’ two lowest-scoring games of the season, a 35-28 loss to Oregon in the second week and a 26-17 win over Nebraska last week, both coincided with their lowest percentage of run plays on the season.

After adjusting for sacks, Ohio State ran the ball 34 percent of the time against the Ducks and just 33 percent of the time against the Cornhuskers. The next lowest percentage is 45 in multiple other games.

On the season, Ohio State has run about 47 percent of the time. If that continues for the balance of the year, it would be the lowest of at least the last 20 years and most likely ever for a program historically known for ground-hugging offenses.

Ohio State is also on pace to for the third-highest scoring team in school history, but that is on a downward trend the last two weeks, and the Buckeyes are set to finish the season with three tough defenses in Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan.

Deciding whether to run or pass is more than a binary choice for head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.

The coaching staff has to respond to what the defense is doing — Wilson said teams tend to still play Ohio State like run-first squad even though the Buckeyes have had a high-powered passing game in recent years — and some plays that go down as passes are considered part of the running game.

That would be quick screens thrown to the outside when the defense is ganged up in the middle and run-pass option (RPO) plays when the quarterback can pull the ball from the running back’s belly and throw a short pass instead.

“When you look at the landscape of college football right now with where offenses and defenses are, when you have three receivers in the game, defenses have been seeing those formations and spread offenses for a few years,” Day said. “A lot of times, there is an extra guy (close to the line of scrimmage between the tackles). Nebraska had an extra guy down a good portion of the game. You saw a lot of RPO plays where we were sticking it in there and throwing it out. Those were called runs, but when they put an extra guy in there, we have to spread out the field.”

Another option would be using more “12 personnel” — two tight ends, two receivers and a running back instead of three receivers, one tight end and a back (“11 personnel”) — to add another blocker to the equation or utilizing quarterback C.J. Stroud to a larger degree in the running game.

“C.J. having a few carries is a good thing,” Day said. “Usually, it’s not designed. That comes when he is reading the extra guy and he is pulling it. Sometimes the extra guy says, ‘Hand it off,’ and you do.”

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Wilson also mentioned a potential strategic tweak that could help an offensive line that on the season has been very good but has suffered a few timely breakdowns the past two weeks.

The offensive coordinator suggested one way the coaches could help the front would be to ask them to block more up the field rather than side to side.

That’s a reference to outside zone recently becoming one of Ohio State’s favorite run plays after favoring inside zone for years.

“Some of those plays are more internal and you want them to go forward,” Wilson said. “Some are a little bit more outside-oriented where (the linemen are) a little bit more — to use the old word, would be like elephants in a parade — and they’re kind of just ganging things up and kind of rolling a little bit so maybe there’s not push there.”

Outside zone — also known as the stretch play — typically calls for the line to take a step sideways toward the play side, attach to a defender and guide him one way or another to create a crease for the running back to find and try to dart through. Ohio State’s version of inside zone is predicated on firing out, engaging the defensive line via double teams, and pushing up the field to create room to run.

Dialing up counters or “gap” runs — which call for the front-side linemen to block down while one or two more pull to kick out whoever is in the hole — offer other options, too.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ohio State has run off tackle or around end 115 times and up the middle 90 times this season with 52 runs over one of the guards. More than 2/3rds of the runs PFF has graded were zone runs.

“If you go sideways, you’re not going to be able to run the ball, so we’ve talked a lot about it,” Wilson said. “The last two weeks with the defenses we’ve had, we’ve not done as good as we need to. It’ll be a challenge this week because Purdue’s strength is up front, their D line, and in the weeks to come, so we’ve got to do a better job whether it’s the play-calling or scheming, the schemes we’re doing, to give our players a chance to get more vertical.”


Purdue at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., ABC, 1410

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