Adventures in Offense 2013: Ohio State

Quarterback Braxton Miller. - Gregory Shamus

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 8th in Big Ten, 105th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 2nd in Big Ten, 10th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 1st in Big Ten, 21st Nationally
Total Offense: 3rd in Big Ten, 46th Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 42.41% (67 out of 158 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 77.78% (7 out of 9 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 88.24% (45 out of 51 attempts)
Total Points: 446 (60 TD, 8 FG, 56 extra point, 3 two-point)
Average points per game: 37.2

2012 Record: 12-0 (8-0 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 44-58-6
Head Coach Urban Meyer: 12-0 at Ohio State, 116-23 overall

What's up with the offense?

Both statistically and to the casual observer, Urban Meyer's offense at Ohio State was one of the most effective and efficient because he had playmakers who could sustain drives by creating something out of nothing. That Meyer was able to come into Columbus and take an offense that was, to put it politely, inconsistent in 2011 (ranked 11th in total offense in the Big Ten) and turn them into the 3rd best total offense in the Big Ten is really quite remarkable. That, combined with the fact that Ohio State is returning 9 starters on offense, has people thinking that they'll probably be even better and maybe even be the best offense in the Big Ten.

Meyer's offense is dangerous, but it's not invincible, despite Buckeye blog Eleven Warriors' best efforts to convince readers otherwise. His spread offense is not your typical spread offense, but it does carry many if not most of the spread's basic tenets. Ninety-eight percent of the time Ohio State will be no-huddle; ninety-eight percent of the time they'll be in the shotgun. Like many spread offenses, Meyer's is designed in many ways to be essentially the reverse of the pro-style offense. Pro-style offenses (while there are varying types, as showcased in the NFL) traditionally aim to tighten up in the trenches and overpower the defensive line, pushing through to the linebackers, thereby creating holes for the running back to run through. For defenses, the natural answer to this "ground-and-pound" attack is to put more men in the box and plug up the holes. Thus, the repetition of running power often leads to an exploitable play-action pass over the defense when it cheats up. Meyer's spread, contrastingly, attempts to force the defense into essentially man-to-man coverage or very tight zones on nearly every play, and then the "play action" is really just a basic, simple play up the middle.

So what makes Urban Meyer's spread offense different from other spread offenses? The biggest thing I've noticed is the type of personnel that fit into it. Rich Rodriguez liked to run his spread with a very athletic quarterback and an equally athletic running back. He depended primarily on the zone-read option and passing was typically secondary. Though I didn't follow Meyer's offense intimately when he was at Florida, what he seems to be doing at Ohio State is employing something of a "triple-threat" in the running game. This is probably why Eleven Warriors thinks his offense is unstoppable. The triple threat comes in the form of a highly athletic quarterback (that should be a given at this point), a quick, light "Percy Harvin-type" back, and a "power" back.*

Looking at Meyer's offense, I'd say it reminds me most of the Auburn spread under Gus Malzahn, which in its heyday had its triple threat in Cam Newton (the ridiculously athletic quarterback), Michael Dyer (the beefy, talented power back), and Onterio McCalebb (the smaller, quicker scatback). Newton and Dyer each broke 1,000 rushing yards in 2010, and McCalebb wasn't that far behind with 810.

When Meyer first arrived in Columbus and talked about "not getting away from the ground game" and recruiting running backs that Buckeye fans were used to seeing, many brushed it off as him merely attempting to appease the Woody Hayes crowd who remember the "three yards and a cloud of dust" philosophy. For the most part, Meyer has been able to hold true to his statement, but in the sense of utilizing bigger backs (which would probably be suited in a downhill rushing offense) than in the sense of calling plays out of the I-form. If Woody Hayes were around to see Meyer's offense, he would likely be appalled and spit at the playbook, despite its effectiveness, because the offense is based on scheme rather than strength.

Ohio State may be running the ball, but at the end of the day, it's still a spread offense. It's just a spread that happens to do more on the ground than through the air. No one watching Ohio State will confuse their offense with the likes of Alabama's or Wisconsin's, but Meyer's ability to feature running backs of varying body types has allowed him to pitch to bigger, more traditional-ish backs like Brionte Dunn and Ezekiel Elliott that they can still play a role in his offense. That might not exactly prepare them for the NFL, but since when has Ohio State ever cared about that?

Besides, Meyer's offense is more centered around the quarterback than the running backs anyway. The QB position is obviously a vital position for the Buckeyes, as evidenced by the fact that its starter led the team in rushing, but like that scene in the Matrix Reloaded the QB position is simultaneously the source of Ohio State's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Spreading the defense the way Meyer does can create holes for the quarterback to zip through, as well as create miss-matches between wide receivers and linebackers, but it also leaves the quarterback particularly susceptible to the blitz. If the quarterback is too busy reading the coverage to see which receivers are open or where he can run, he can sometimes be caught unawares if the defense sends an extra pass rusher at the O-Line.

Football Study Hall analyzed Ohio State's offense and came to a similar conclusion:

It's common for dual-threat quarterbacks to rely on scrambling and buying time rather than making quick decisions in the pocket. This becomes a death trap against a good blitzing team that overloads the protections available to an empty formation.

Both Football Study Hall and Bill Connelly of SB nation state that Ohio State's receiving corps were sub-par, and in a general sense I think that's correct, but in a specific sense I don't think it is. Generally, the Buckeyes were 8th in passing in a conference that wasn't exactly proficient at passing, no receiver for the Scarlet and Gray broke 1,000 yards, and the quarterback finished at No. 7 in passing ranks among the Big Ten's starters under center. In that vein it's tough to say the Buckeyes had a dangerous passing game or showed an obvious amount of balance. They didn't. However, Ohio State's two best receivers had an average of 11.15 and 20.60 yards per completion, which lines up with what you probably saw them do: make huge, clutch plays to keep drives going.

Regardless, and as much as Urban Meyer might claim that he wants to be more balanced in 2013, we're probably going to see him lean even more on the run game since that's what worked best for him and that's where the majority of his skill talent resides.

*ESPN claims in their preview of the upcoming season that "Meyer was never able to find somebody to play his hybrid H-back position last year, so the Buckeyes simply didn't use it," which I don't think is wholly accurate. Unless I'm completely misunderstanding what an H-back is, I thought the guy playing that role happened to be Zach Boren before he moved to linebacker (or moved back from linebacker; I don't know, he moved around a lot). Not only that, but Carlos Hyde (6'0", 242 lbs.) seemed to frequently play the H-back part in short yardage situations.

Key Players

Apparently there's some guy on the team named Braxton Miller. The 6'2", 210 lbs. native of Huber Heights, OH was heralded as the second coming of Terrelle Pryor two years ago, and today he's the headliner for the Buckeye offense and really the entire Buckeye team. That's because he was more than 70% of their offense. Miller led the team in rushing with 1,271 yards (the only ball-carrier to crack 1,000 yards on the ground) in 227 attempts, which are numbers that many running backs, let alone dual-threat quarterbacks, strive toward.

He was decent but not spectacular as a passer, with a completion percentage of 58.3%, which was just enough to get the job done. He threw for an average of 169.9 yards a game (a lower average than streaky QBs like James Vandenberg and Andrew Maxwell), so I don't think anyone will be saying he'll be a prolific weapon through the air. (To be fair, though, he did have a better average than Denard.)

If Miller goes down, what happens? The guy backing him up is senior Kenny Guiton. Sometimes referred to as "Braxton Miller Lite," Guiton only attempted 23 passes in 2013 and completed 13 of them in the rare occurrences where Miller had to step off the field. His most notable performance came when he stepped in against Purdue, throwing 6-of-11 passes and a TD (and an INT). The rational Ohio State fans fear that he might not have the moxie to carry the team through the season in the event Miller's season is halted by injury, but it probably won't come to that.

There's a crazy amount of depth and talent at running back, and it's there where Meyer will put the biggest lean on his offense. The starter is senior Carlos Hyde, who was Ohio State's most frequent ball-carrier besides Miller, racking up 970 yards on a median 185 carries (most backs shoot for 200), becoming the team's second-most rusher behind the illustrious QB. Of course, it wouldn't be Ohio State without somebody getting suspended, and Hyde is being forced to sit out three games of the season.

Will it cost them? Doubtful. Meyer shared the remaining carries in 2012 with a plethora of running backs that are returning, including Rod Smith, Jordan Hall, and Brionte Dunn. Ohio State fans are extremely excited about incoming freshman Dontre Wilson, who Braxton Miller referred to as a "lightning bolt" on the Big Ten Network's preview tour. At 5'10", 175 lbs., Wilson fits the mold of the lighter back, has bucketloads of hype building around him already, and like nearly every touted Ohio State running back recruited under Meyer, he has drawn early comparisons to Percy Harvin.

There is also talented depth in players like Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Elliott is a recruit who Meyer nabbed from Missouri (much to the chagrin of Mizzou fans, since he was the best in-state prospect), and if he was on any other roster he would probably be the team's feature back. Ball, meanwhile, is a thicker back at 6'1", 222 lbs. from hometown Columbus, has been called an "unsung hero" by the coaching staff, and looks like an adequate substitute/eventual replacement for Carlos Hyde.

In all, Ohio State's running back depth totals at six if you're not counting Hyde, so even if Miller gets injured and Guiton struggles to perform, Meyer will lean on his running backs to carry the offense through the season. If Miller manages to stay healthy (which I'd say is favorable, given his durability in 2012), it'll be difficult for Meyer to get each of his running backs enough carries so that at least one or two aren't tempted to transfer.

Several season prognosticators are saying that Ohio State's receiving corps will need to take a big step forward if they hope to be a championship offense, but as I mentioned above, I don't know if that's entirely necessary. True, if the Buckeyes do become more of a threat through the air they'll be even more dangerous, and what's scary is that, at least in my opinion, they have the talent to do it. All of Ohio State's major contributors who tallied catches are back with the notable exception of tight end Jake Stoneburner. Corey Brown (60 receptions, 669 yards, 3 TDs) and Devin Smith (30 receptions, 618 yards, 6 TDs) are the two names to watch as they were tough match-ups for many defensive backs in 2012 and often came away with improbable catches.

Aside from Stoneburner, tight end wasn't a huge area of production in 2012, but the guys who did make a few catches, albeit in limited roles, were freshman (now sophomore) Nick Vannett and sophomore (now junior) Jeff Heuerman, both of whom will be on the roster for 2013. Meyer didn't recruit many tight ends in his classes, but he did rope in four-star Marcus Baugh from Riverside, CA, who shouldn't surprise anyone if he ends up on the field as a true freshman.

The offensive line returns four starters, making Ohio State's entire offensive unit one of the Big Ten's most experienced, and therefore one that is expected to be the most consistent. 247Sports goes so far as to predict that it will be among the best in the nation. Though there's still a battle going on at right tackle, the Buckeye's OL is sound with seniors like Jack Mewhort at left tackle, Marcus Hall at right guard, Corey Linsely at center, and Andrew Norwell at left guard. Giving up 29 sacks in 2012 (Illinois and Nebraska were the only Big Ten teams to give up more) appears to indicate that the Buckeye line struggled in pass protection, but some attribute the sacks to Braxton Miller's scrambling and lack of decisiveness in the pocket.

Conclusion

When I started doing these offensive previews, I looked at the Big Ten from the 1,000-foot view and thought that Ohio State might be the only team to garner a solid "A+" rating. On paper, it's tough to find a better returning offensive squad in the Big Ten than what Urban Meyer has returning in Columbus, which is why so many people are saying that they'll steamroll their way to a national championship. RantSports is calling the Buckeye offense a "juggernaut" and saying that Miller is a shoo-in for the Heisman. Now, after doing all the research that I've done, I don't know if I really believe all the hype, nor do I buy into the reasons why shamelessly biased Buckeye sportswriters stare in awe of Urban Meyer.

What I will say is that Ohio State's offense has the potential to be the most dangerous in the Big Ten, and as a Michigan fan that's saying a lot. Granted, even if I'm being completely objective about it and remove my Maize and Blue tinted glasses, I would never trade Devin Gardner for Braxton Miller. That doesn't mean I don't think Miller is an incredible athlete in a system where he can be explosive.

However, I'm hesitant to say that Ohio State's offense will be able to replicate their 12-0 run while they have to replace pretty much their entire front seven on the other side of the ball. Besides, against solid defenses, the Buckeye offense didn't exactly look like an elite offense that went 12-0. Of course, with the schedule that they have, they don't have to be elite, they just have to focus all their energy on being undefeated by the time they hit November and then all they'll have to worry about is Michigan.

Grade: A

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