Ohio State’s 2014 national championship under Urban Meyer was defined by two breakthrough games for the Buckeyes offense. The first was their regular-season takedown of fellow Big Ten contender Michigan State on the Spartans’ own turf. That victory was spearheaded by young quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 300 yards on 26 attempts (11.5 yards per attempt), thoroughly wrecking Michigan State’s “load-the-box, stop-the-run” defensive strategy with explosive gains in the passing game.
The next breakthrough was their Big Ten Championship Game victory over the Wisconsin Badgers with backup Cardale Jones at quarterback. Jones threw only 17 passes, but they went for 257 yards and 15.3 yards per attempt, which easily exploited the Badgers’ strategy of focusing on the QB run game.
In hindsight, it’s clear that those impressive victories — and the explosiveness in the passing game — were the main indicators that Ohio State — and not Alabama — would go on to win the national title.
That explosiveness was absent in 2016 when the Buckeyes made their way to the College Football Playoff with a combination of stellar defensive play and quarterback runs — until an extremely talented Clemson defense handed Meyer the first shutout of his career.
Now, Meyer has turned to Kevin Wilson, the former head at coach at Indiana, to engineer another breakthrough. There’s a lot for Wilson to fix — but also a lot of talent at his disposal.
The Silenced Buckeyes Offense
The Barrett-led Buckeyes are responsible for one of the more dominant schemes in modern college football, the QB split-zone play from a four-WR formation.
With four receivers running routes to worry about, it can be very difficult for the opposition to get enough defenders in the box to stop the quarterback runs, particularly this split-zone scheme that Barrett can read and execute at a high level. When combined with the Buckeye quarterback’s 6'2" 222-pound frame and outstanding quickness, it was a nearly automatic conversion on 3rd-and-6 or less. With pass options attached, it could also become an easy way to isolate a speedy skill player or a big target in space.
The problem for the Buckeyes in 2016: They they were excellent at using quarterback runs and option plays, but they weren’t particularly good at anything else.
Barrett averaged only 6.7 yards per passing attempt, and two of the team’s top three targeted receivers included H-back (a slot back position) Curtis Samuel and tight end Marcus Baugh, both of whom roamed in the middle of the field. Their star receiver on the outside, Noah Brown, managed only 7.7 yards per target. Opposing defenses with good cornerback play didn’t have to worry about the vertical passing game.
Closer examination of Ohio State’s various failures on offense in 2016 reveals that Barrett and his receivers were not always on the same page. While the Buckeyes could execute a concert of blocks and reads in the spread-option run game, they did not enjoy a similar mastery of the passing game, and there wasn’t a go-to receiver they could trust to get open.
The issues came to the forefront when Ohio State faced teams that weren’t overwhelmed by the Buckeyes’ offensive line — teams such as Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Clemson.
Without the ability to grab chunk yardage with its running game, Ohio State failed to generate the type of explosive plays that have made Meyer-coached teams so effective in the past.
The Wilson Fix
Wilson earned his reputation as one of the game’s top offensive coaches while the coordinator at Northwestern, most notably during a memorable 54–51 win over Michigan in 2000 when the Wildcats rolled up an astounding 654 total yards. Northwestern operated an up-tempo spread built around the run game, which is now fairly ubiquitous in the college game.
Wilson next went to Oklahoma, where his greatest achievement was a 2008 season in which quarterback Sam Bradford threw for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns (and won the Heisman Trophy) and two OU running backs, DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown, ran for over 1,000 yards.
In 2011, he was named head coach at Indiana, where his offenses continued to thrive; the Hoosiers ranked in the top five in the Big Ten in total offense every season from 2012-16.
A look at Wilson’s work from his time at both Oklahoma and Indiana indicates that his strengths will go a long way in shoring up Ohio State’s weakness:
As you can tell from these S&P+ adjusted stats, despite building run-centric offenses, Wilson’s teams have consistently thrown the ball very well, even when they don’t run it effectively. When they do run the ball well, the passing game flourishes even more.
Wilson’s approach to the passing game has been quite different from what we’ve seen at Ohio State in recent years. Under Meyer, it’s been fairly obvious when the Buckeyes want to throw the ball. They’ve featured empty formations designed to create stress and simple reads before the snap.
They used such a set early against Wisconsin last year.
It’s basically an isolation play, with the receivers lined up in an unbalanced 4x1 set but with the intention of setting up Samuel (“R” in this diagram) to work in isolation against a Badger linebacker in the middle of the field. However, the Badgers dropped a safety down, bracketed Samuel with the extra man, and used a stunt with linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Conor Sheehy to bring down Barrett for a sack when his easy read wasn’t open.
The Wilson passing game isn’t designed to create opportunities for easy tosses between the hash marks like Meyer’s empty formations. Instead, there’s a greater focus on developing chemistry between the quarterback and outside receivers to work the space outside the hash marks that teams vacate in order to stop the run. The comeback route and back shoulder fade are much more common in Wilson’s attack.
The three most targeted receivers for the Indiana Hoosiers last year were the two outside receivers and the main slot receiver, each of whom had as many targets (around 90) as Samuel, the lead Buckeye receiver. They made heavy use of concepts in which the slot would attack the seam and command the attention of the deep safety(s) and thus free up the outside receiver(s) to work in the open grass outside the hash marks — concepts such as the dig/post route combination.
This kind of route distribution and formation presents four stress points for the defense that may require help from the safety. The first is for the cornerback who is isolated on the outside receiver on the boundary. The second is down in the box, where the defense has to worry about stopping the run. The third stress point is over the dig route by the slot receiver, who may not have the full attention of the nickel back if that defender has responsibilities against the run. The fourth is on the post route by the other outside receiver; if the safety is helping on the dig route by the slot, the cornerback will be left alone on the dreaded post route.
That’s four areas that may require safety help but only two players to address the issues. Plays like this take advantage of the natural spacing that occurs on the field when the defense has to worry about getting defenders to the point of attack on running plays while handling the stress of a spread formation. The key is that Wilson’s teams have generally shown a greater command of how to attack that space — both in the passing and running games — than Ohio State’s recent offenses.
Many of these concepts are already present in the Ohio State playbook; they simply haven’t been an area of emphasis.
The Buckeyes Offense in 2017
In the long term, it’s clear that Ohio State will be running an offense that closely resembles Indiana’s attack under Wilson. The quarterbacks in the Buckeyes’ pipeline — Joe Burrow, Dwayne Haskins and incoming four-star freshman Tate Martell — were highly recruited for their abilities in the passing game, not just what they offer as runners.
The challenge in the short term will be fitting this paradigm into Meyer’s existing offense and getting Barrett and the outside receivers on the same page so that they can hit timing routes outside of the hash marks. It’ll be a fresh start, with Samuel and Brown both departing for the NFL and the Buckeyes looking to replace them with very green receivers.
If they can get that dimension of their offense humming, then the option run game will once again be dominant and explosive, helping Ohio State contend for championships in the improving Big Ten.
Written by Ian Boyd (@Ian_A_Boyd) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.