Is Ohio State’s running game fixed?
The eighth-ranked Buckeyes won’t have to wait long to find out.
The nation’s No. 1 rush defense awaits when Ohio State faces No. 24 Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday.
The Buckeyes will head north coming off their second-best rushing performance of season, a 229-yard outburst against Nebraska last Saturday.
That was the best single-game performance since Ohio State went for 375 yards against out-manned Oregon State in the season opener, and it was more than the Buckeyes managed in their previous two games combined.
The Spartans present an entirely different challenge, though.
Not only does Nebraska possess one of the worst defenses in the country, the Cornhuskers’ 3-4 scheme has significant differences from Michigan State’s 4-3 attack.
The Spartans’ scheme was built to stop spread offenses like Ohio State’s, and it has had a lot of success doing so over the years.
The most recent meeting between the teams is an exception. One year ago this week, the Buckeyes ran roughshod over Michigan State, a shocking 335-yard rushing performance in a 48-3 destruction of a Spartans team that still had hopes of winning the Big Ten East.
This time instead of looking to bounce back from a loss, Ohio State is hoping to build momentum for a strong finish.
Asked if the run game’s success against the Huskers was sustainable, coach Urban Meyer replied, “It has to be. … Schematically, it’s different, but the mentality has to be the same.”
Ohio State’s most experienced offensive lineman and running back both indicated some schematic tweaks helped them take a different mindset into the Nebraska game.
“Just running at ’em,” running back Mike Weber said after picking up 91 yards on nine carries. “We did a lot of perimeter runs and tried to get cute with the run game and it didn’t work for us in the past and it never worked for us. I think we came this week to trying to push guys off the ball and we did that.”
He said the run-pass option plays (a.k.a. “RPOs”) that have been a staple of the offense most of the season almost entirely were eliminated for the Nebraska game.
Isaiah Prince, Ohio State’s starting right tackle since 2016, confirmed that made a big difference.
“You can fly off the ball and not have to worry about — when you do an RPO and the quarterback pulls the ball you lose sense of where the defense is supposed to be,” Prince said. “Me being a veteran I know on certain run plays I know how the defense is going to react in certain situations. When you add RPOs, that can kind of make it hard to see.”
However, Prince was unequivocal in his acceptance of a return of the RPOs — if necessary.
“That’s our offense,” he said, noting RPOs were a big part of Ohio State’s win over TCU in September.
The Buckeyes ran for 182 yards while quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw for 344 yards against the Horned Frogs.
“Whatever coaches call is the best call,” Prince said. “It worked but (coach Ryan) Day is a great offensive coordinator. Coach (Kevin) Wilson, there’ s a bunch of great offensive coaches on that staff. Whatever they decide to call is the best decision in my eyes.”
Meyer said the scheme adjustment was a result of hours and hours of study and practice.
He also personally exhorted Weber and co-No. 1 running back J.K. Dobbins to take it upon themselves to be more physical.
“Obviously, we’re facing the No. 1 rush defense in the country coming up this next week, but our offensive line played very well and our backs, that was their best pad level game as far as dropping their pads and getting through those holes,” Meyer said.