Is this the week Ohio State’s amazing ever-expanding offensive playbook halts its growth?
Or are the Buckeyes prepared to unleash yet more new tricks on the Nebraska on Saturday night?
Ryan Day isn’t saying, of course, but the coach of the fifth-ranked Buckeyes acknowledged a common dilemma coaches face when putting together a game plan.
How much is too much?
“I think that’s something that we talk about on a daily basis, and that is how much new do you need, and then how much do you just want to let the kids play and run the plays they know really well?” Day said. “The art of coaching is figuring out that balance. You don’t want to just keep running the same plays where schematically you’re not giving your guys an advantage, but then you overdo it and then they’re tentative and not sure of themselves.”
After seven years as almost exclusively a spread football team, the Buckeyes have shown off a variety of looks so far in the first month of 2019.
“12 personnel” (two receivers, one running back, two tight ends) has been deployed regularly to complement the “11 personnel” (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) that remains the standard look for Ohio State and most of college football.
The Buckeyes have also operated from under center more than a few times, giving defenses something else to prepare for and the running game a jolt by letting the back get more momentum heading into the line.
That, in turn, often makes play-action passes more dangerous for a team that was already accustomed to scoring lots and lots of points year in and year out.
The offense has a new look from a personnel standpoint, too, with quarterback Justin Fields among seven new starters, but that has not held them back intellectually.
“We do a lot of concept-based teaching so that we’re able to kind of jump in and out of things as opposed to this is a play, this is a concept and how do you fit into the concept, and when you do that it’s easier to move formations around, change ideas,” Day said. “Maybe you run a route but you just tag one guy. Things like that that are a little bit more concept based, and that way we’re able to move in and out of formations or personnel groupings.”
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The 2019 Ohio State offense, like most offenses, is built to accentuate the strengths of Fields.
A transfer from Georgia, he got experience playing under center last season and has looked comfortable operating both there and from the shotgun for the Buckeyes.
He’s been careful with the ball, almost to a fault, something that is not uncommon for young quarterbacks still getting a feel for the college game.
The alternative (being too careless and committing turnovers) is of course worse, but generally a time comes in close games when a quarterback needs to push he envelope to get the best out of himself and his teammates.
Could that come this week?
“I think going into big games like this, you can’t make a game bigger than it is,” Fields said. “I mean, if you do that then you end up not playing to your full potential. So just kind of treating this like any other game and just doing the same things we’ve been doing the past four weeks and executing on offense and doing all that stuff.”
That sounds like, “Wait and see,” which might not be too comforting for fans wondering if Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is a good place for a young quarterback to get his first real test.
However, he said his own defense has prepared him for adversity already.
“They know more of our concepts because we run against them a lot so we just have to throw the ball into tighter windows and doing all that stuff,” he said. “I think it helps the offense, helps me specifically just fitting those balls inside of windows and just working on chemistry with receivers. Our D line is amazing, so it definitely helps our O line, and I think it just helps everyone on offense.”
The team learning how to handle adversity has been a big theme for Day, perhaps never more than this week, and perhaps never more than with his young quarterback.
“He’s got a spring and a preseason under his belt, and that’s good, but there’s still a lot to be learned, a lot to see as we get going in these conference games,” Day said.
“He has grown for sure, and he will continue to grow. He’s got a good approach to him, and he’s got the right mindset, but there’s going to be adversity along the way, and he’s going to have to handle that. When you look back on all the great quarterbacks, they have to handle that the right way and they have to improve when things like that come into play and handle that the right way, and he will.”