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Ohio State football and the mysterious disappearing tailback runs

Published: Thursday, November 09, 2017 @ 5:12 PM
By: Marcus Hartman

Ohio State’s shocking blowout loss at Iowa created a lot of questions. 

One interests me more than the others, and not just because I was born in the same county as Woody Hayes (probably). 

What’s up with Ohio State’s running game? 

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who idolized Hayes growing up in northeast Ohio, acknowledged Monday that the Buckeyes need to get the ball to running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber more after J.T. Barrett again got the majority of the team’s carries in a loss.

RELATED: Meyer turns focus to Michigan State

That has been a common theme when the Buckeyes struggle on offense, and Meyer has even described the quarterback running game as a security blanket or get-out-of-jail-free card on multiple occasions.

Obviously opponents know that, too. They also know Dobbins and Weber are more dangerous runners than Barrett, so when given the choice, they generally give Barrett a “keep” read when the Buckeyes call their base zone-read option play

“Those are all things we have to game plan and continue to work and find ways to give handoffs to the tailback,” Meyer said Monday.

That sounds astoundingly easy, doesn’t it?

Nine-year-old football players know how to hand off, right? 

This is not the same thing as trying to make sure a star receiver gets the ball. Stuff has to happen in between the snap and the catch in that scenario.  

To get a handoff to a running back, a coach just has to, well, call a handoff to the running back. 

After Meyer confirmed he has told his coaching staff this week he wants to see Dobbins and Weber get the ball more, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson went into more detail about why and how that might happen – plus why it might not. 

“Every defense you’re playing is outnumbering you, and either the quarterback or the run-pass option equates that,” Wilson said, identifying the two ways Ohio State has chosen most often so far this season. 

READ MORE about OSU’s “RPOs” here

But what if defenses are putting too many people near the line of scrimmage to block and the quarterback run isn’t a very appealing alternative? Obviously defenses don’t consider Barrett’s legs a very deadly poison if they keep picking it. 

“Sometimes they’re forcing him to keep the ball because they don’t want J.K. to keep the ball,” Wilson said. “So that being said, schematically we’ve got to find a way to get some hats on those guys so our running back can be the runner. At the end of the day, we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks.” 

But why not? 

Well, this is an appropriate week for that question because it’s the same dilemma Ohio State faced last time this weekend’s opponent – Michigan State – came to Columbus. 

After the Spartans coerced Barrett into 15 runs, leaving star running back Ezekiel Elliott with just 12, Elliott famously spoke out. 

What Elliott suggested after that 17-14 loss in 2015 – gap blocking – has been seen some but not often. 

(Gap blocking, including the venerable “power” play that was the staple of Jim Tressel’s OSU offense, revolves around down blocks and backside pullers to get an extra blocker or two to the point of attack. Ohio State has lately favored zone blocking, in which linemen are assigned an area and will employ double-teams based on various rules.)

The reason Ohio State has not used gap blocking regularly over the last two-plus seasons has never been entirely clear, a mystery deepened by the fact gap blocking was part of the successful formula for Meyer’s teams in the past, including in the 2014 postseason when Cardale Jones (a capable but not great runner) was Ohio State’s quarterback. 

One theory is the time it takes to learn all those fancy new passing plays leaves little for installing and more importantly mastering multiple blocking schemes. 

RELATED: 5 things Urban Meyer said after examining Ohio State’s loss to Iowa

Of course trying to run out of spread formations without using the quarterback much, if at all, is not a new problem. 

“In my time through the years and other places the times the quarterback cannot run — our quarterback can run here — how do you still find running game when the quarterback can’t run?” Wilson asked. “We’ve had to do that over time, and we’ve tried the last few — we had some things last week we just didn’t get to it.” 

That’s a tantalizing statement. 

It hints Ohio State knows what it needs to do – the Buckeyes just need to do it. 

If the quarterback is running too much, Wilson needs to call fewer option plays, and if Ohio State still wants to run the ball, that will probably require some different blocking schemes (see above). 

If they don’t, it could be because of a reluctance to change philosophically from a team built on speed to one built on power. 

“Well, we like that speed and that spread stuff, so when you spread it out you get into either the run-pass option or the read option,” Wilson said, indicating they could circle back to what they have been doing and try to do it better rather than try something new. 

He admitted he thought he could rely on Barrett’s arm last week because of the hot streak he and his receivers had been on for six weeks, but the quarterback responded by throwing four interceptions. 

Nobody would have predicted that, but then again Barrett should never be confused with Joe Germaine, so maybe the coaching staff should have known that bubble was going to burst eventually. 

At any rate, that’s what happened last week. 

What’s it going to be this week against Michigan State? 

Wilson wasn’t giving anything away. 

“We’ll fight hard to get (Dobbins) going,” he said. “He’s been great. And going forward yeah we’ve got to get him carries. Got to, but I don’t think we can force it, either.”