Ohio State football: Day wants to see what his team’s ‘fastball’ will be in 2023

COLUMBUS — What will Ohio State’s feature on offense this season?

That’s a question head coach Ryan Day went into the week hoping to answer, ideally with an exclamation point coming Saturday when the team holds its second major scrimmage of the preseason.

“By Saturday, we need to have our identity kind of etched in stone on where we’re at,” Day said Monday. “We say all the time you have your fastballs and you have your changeups and curveballs. Well, we better know where the fastballs are and then continue to get better at the changeups and curveballs.”

For decades, Ohio State’s No. 1 pitch was no secret: The running game.

Though All-American fullbacks Bob Ferguson and Jim Otis gave way to star tailbacks like Archie Griffin, Keith Byars, Eddie George and many more, there was little doubt what the plan of attack would center on from the days of Woody Hayes all the way through Jim Tressel.

Urban Meyer shifted the focus to the quarterback, but his teams still ran almost 60 percent of the time, and he had his share of star running backs, too.

Day came to Columbus as offensive coordinator in 2017 with the stated goal of sprucing up the passing game, and he did just that.

He has shown a diverse repertoire in his time, though, especially since becoming head coach in 2019.

That season, the Buckeyes had a dual-threat quarterback in Justin Fields, but he kept the ball about half as often as Meyer’s quarterbacks generally did, and the team still ran on 59 percent of its plays overall.

Ohio State ran it 57 percent of the time in the truncated 2020 season, but the total dipped to 44 percent in 2021 despite Day having to turn the keys of his offense over to redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud.

Last season with Stroud back at the helm, that figure was 52 percent as the Buckeyes made a concerted effort to be more balanced, but Stroud is gone and a new starter had not been named as of this writing.

Does that mean a return of three yards and a cloud of dust? Don’t count on it, especially considering Ohio State has perhaps the nation’s best duo of receivers in juniors Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka.

With Day’s passing game acumen and multiple highly-recruited quarterbacks, throwing the ball is certainly going to be Ohio State’s focus for the foreseeable future, but many pitchers throw more than one fastball.

To tease out that metaphor, running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Willams could be the four-seamer used to get ahead of hitters while the passing game is the two-seamer, a pitch that is still fairly simple but moves and is harder for a hitter to track.

“The running game is going to be very important,” Day said. “You think about the first years for Justin and for C.J., it was important to have a good running game. We learned a lesson on that in the (2021) Oregon game in my opinion on offense.”

The Buckeyes lost 35-28 to the Ducks on a day they averaged 4.1 yards per carry but ran only 31 times (including two sacks) compared 54 passes.

Stroud threw for 484 yards, but Ohio State had multiple failed scoring chances, at least in part because their inability (or refusal) to rely on the running game made them more predictable situationally.

“You have to be able to run the football,” Day said. “When you get in the red zone, when you get in third down situations, first and second down, it sets up play-action pass. It’s something that we’ve been spending a lot of time on, and I like our progress there, but we have got to keep building on it.”

Of course, there is more than one way to run the ball, and the passing game can be utilized in an even greater variety of ways.

Quick slants and screen passes can keep the ball moving and the defense honest while setting up the deep ball, which probably counts as the big-breaking curveball or sweeping slider in this analogy.

Whatever the case, Day identified the time to figure it out being based on the academic calendar as much as anything.

“By the end of this week, you’d like to know where you’re at in a lot of areas,” he said. “This is kind of the last week we can just focus on football because classes start next Tuesday.

“So by the end of this week, you’ve got to know. I think right now we know what we need to work on.”

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