Last season the Buckeyes relied on the backfield tandem of Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller to produce when they needed to make a play. While both of those players were known commodities entering the 2013 season, Hyde missed the first three games with a suspension and Miller missed time with injuries so it would be unfair to say that identity was forged that early in the season.
Still, last year’s Buckeyes had some idea of what they would look like as an offensive unit after the opener against Buffalo and likely before playing a down of the 2013 season. This year’s unit thought Miller would define them, but with J.T. Barrett replacing him under center the Buckeyes have a way to go to figure out where their bread is buttered.
"First you have to figure out who you have, what kind of team you have, what your strengths are,” co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “You have to play some games to figure that out. Usually the biggest improvement is between game one and game two. Now we have a standard as to where some of these guys are at, what they can do, what they do well under pressure.
“Our identity is we have a lot of athletic guys with speed. We have skill. We have to get the ball in the skill players' hands in space and then mix in some inside run game with that, and take some shots down the field because we have great speed at receiver, too. We did a little bit of that, but not as consistently as we wanted."
Entering the second half of Saturday's opener trailing Navy by a 7-6 score, Ohio State threw just four passes in the final 30 minutes, and while one of those was an 80-yard bomb to Devin Smith, like last year the Buckeyes relied on their running game to get the job done.
With no Hyde on the roster the carries were more spread out and head coach Urban Meyer said the team ran essentially two plays down the stretch to win the game: the jet sweep to Dontre Wilson threatening the edge and an inside zone run to one of their stable of backs.
Wilson said he likes running the jet sweeps, but sees the offense developing an identity through the air as the season goes on.
"Last year, we were pretty much a run-based team with Braxton and Carlos,” he said. “We used to throw it out to Philly (Brown) every once in a while, but this year I feel like we'll be a great passing team."
That wasn’t the case Saturday as the Buckeyes rushed the ball 19 times against just four passes after halftime. Ezekiel Elliot led the way in second-half carries with seven while Wilson and Curtis Samuel had three each and Rod Smith had one. The coaching staff believes they have an abundance of offensive talent, but they don’t yet have the guy they can rely on to carry them.
“Last year we had a guy that was a 20-, 25- carry guy. We have some pretty capable players,” Meyer said when asked if the team needed one guy to shoulder the load. “We also don't have that body type to go just slam it in there so many times behind the offensive line. And so that's a good question. We're going to see.”
Elliott, the leader in carries Saturday, said the team is still developing its identity, but that part of what defines the 2014 Ohio State offense could be the multitude of guys getting the ball.
“I think we’re still figuring it out. We’ve got a lot of weapons,” he said after the Navy game. “We can spread the ball around. There are a lot of guys getting touches like you saw today. I think we’re going to keep developing and we’ll get a lot better.”
Last season the ability of the Buckeyes to rely on Miller and Hyde to grind out yards was dependent on the offensive line executing like one of the best in the country. Four of those starters have departed and Meyer said the play-calling against Navy was dictated at times by a lack of faith in his front five. In order to establish an identity the line must play with more consistency.
Taylor Decker, the lone holdover from last year’s line, said there is not clear timetable for when an identity will be established because everyone has to be executing for that to happen.
“It will just be as long as it takes for every guy to settle into their position and become comfortable with it,” he said. “Some guys are going to take longer than others until they are playing at their full capacity and once guys do that, you will be able to see our identity.
"We have a lot of speed on the edge so I think we are going to be able to get the ball in playmakers hands on the edge. Obviously we don’t have the same line and the same running back as we did last year, but we do have a really good line in my opinion and really good running backs so it’s just how long it takes guys to be comfortable.”
The Buckeyes got the win against Navy and the team’s offensive identity came a little more into focus. Clearing up the picture entirely, however, will take time.