The Ohio State offensive line may be paying the price for progress this season.
While the passing game soars to heights never seen from the Scarlet and Gray, the Buckeyes’ running game has left something to be desired this season.
Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, whose media appearances are rarer than most of Ohio State’s coaches, held court Wednesday night for a candid discussion about what is and is not going on up front for the nation’s No. 2 team.
“I think we’ve been struggling in certain areas, short yardage stuff bothers me,” Studrawa said. “The consistency running the ball bothers me, but we’re adjusting. It’s part of this RPO world that we’re living in now with the quarterback we have.”
“RPO” stands for “run-pass option.” The term covers a family of plays that represent the next evolution of the triple-option football fans have been familiar with for decades. RPOs have been proliferating through college football for a few years, but the Philadelphia Eagles helped bring them mainstream last season on their way to the Super Bowl.
While the old triple-option or veer gave the quarterback the ability to hand off to the fullback up the middle, keep the ball and run himself off tackle or pitch to a halfback on the edge, RPOs replace the pitch man with a receiver downfield or in the flat.
Like their predecessors, RPOs force a defense to play assignment football. They prevent ganging up on inside runs while also punishing defenses for ignoring the running game of a pass-first team.
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, a first-year starter who is a drop-back passer as opposed to dual-threat predecessors J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, has thrived executing all manner of passing plays this season.
He has also at least occasionally pulled the ball and thrown it when the defense was not loaded up to stop the run.
“Before those things were handed off,” Studrawa said. “Now Dwayne looks out there and he sees it’s one-on-one with our wideouts and he’s pulling it and giving those guys an opportunity. Whereas before he’d hand off to Mike (Weber), we’d get four, five or six, get in a groove and drive the ball. That’s been an adjustment for us.”
Averaging well over head coach Urban Meyer’s desired 500 total yards per game (556.9, No. 2 in the nation, including 371.4 through the air), there is no denying the offense has been successful overall, but Meyer and Studrawa both know there will be times the Buckeyes need to lean on their running game.
So far, there’s not enough evidence they can, and that is in part a matter of lack of reps.
“Two things that I’ve noticed: One is we’re making more big plays in the pass game,” Studrawa said. “If you go back and look at our drives the last few years, it’s a 10-, 12-, 14-play drive with eight of them runs. Now we get a run, a pass and then it’s a 40- or 50-yard pass and then we’re back to the sideline. How that run would have worked, I don’t know. We never got to it. So that pounding, those are what we call gut shots. And then in the fourth quarter it makes it much easier. Now we’re making big plays in the pass game and then in the fourth quarter we don’t have a feel for it.”
Ohio State is averaging 39 runs per game (after removing sacks), down just three from the average of the first six seasons under Meyer.
The Buckeyes had a season-low 29 runs last week against Minnesota (again not counting sacks), and Meyer said 8-10 pass plays were RPOs on which Haskins decided to throw the ball. Neither coach said how many, if any, of those were the wrong decision, and Haskins said Tuesday night he was comfortable with the ones he had made against the Golden Gophers.
Asked if he would rather throw than run if all things were equal, the quarterback replied, “I mean, I’d like to say my arm is pretty good, so if I have the opportunity to throw I would like to throw, but just doing what our offense does and what the defense gives us.”
Pressed on the topic, Studrawa admitted RPOs complicate his world, probably more than he would like. That’s because while the line is supposed to treat an RPO like any other run play, they know that if they end up blocking downfield before Haskins gets a throw away they could be called for a penalty.
That happened Saturday to right tackle Isaiah Prince.
“Yeah some of those they’re a little bit nervous about being called downfield,” Studrawa said. “He was upset about that penalty, but I was like, ‘Kid, you’re driving that ball down the field. You’re trying to finish a block. If it’s called an RPO, that’s part of what it is.’”
While it’s hard to argue with the overall success of the offense (which is also sixth in nation scoring at 46.3 points per game), he would like to see his offensive line get into a groove.
“(We’ll have) a running play then go try to get more and it’s three or four RPOs, so that’s been difficult the past couple of games,” Studrawa said. “Then we’re trying to adjust and make it more consistent. That’s what bothers me. I just want more consistency.”