There’s the school-record 45.5 points per game the Buckeyes scored last year, and the fact the Buckeyes are slightly ahead of that pace this year with 45.6 per game. This year’s squad has already tied the school mark with five 50-point games, including a record four in a row at one point.
But there are two other numbers that have followed Herman longer than he would probably care to admit – fourth-and-2.
It’s the play that won’t soon be forgotten, the No. 1 thing critics of Herman point to when saying his offenses tend to struggle on the biggest stages. Last year, with Ohio State trailing Michigan State by a 28-24 score in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes faced a fourth-and-2 in MSU territory and ran quarterback Braxton Miller on a keeper sweep to the right side.
Ohio State fans know what happened from there. MSU linebacker Denicos Allen fought off a block from tight end Jeff Heuerman and brought down Miller short of the line. The Spartans marched down and scored to put the title game away, giving the Buckeyes the first loss of the Urban Meyer era and ending the team’s national championship hopes.
Last year’s game was a battle of two great units, Ohio State’s record-smashing offense and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s physical, intractable defense. And at the end of the day, with the game on the line, Michigan State won.
“That was just a kid making a play,” Herman said this week. “Their linebacker made a hell of a play.”
So good, in fact, that Allen thwarted a play that had gone for a touchdown twice in the game earlier. Miller followed the blocks of Carlos Hyde and Heuerman for a score that tied the game in the third quarter, then ran a counter off of the same play and went the opposite way for the TD that gave OSU a short-lived lead.
This time around, the Spartan made the play, though, thanks in part to a blitz of the team’s two linebackers from the edges that it hadn’t used all game.
“In that play, for example, they went double rifle blitz, they didn't run it all game long,” OSU tight ends coach Tim Hinton said. “It was the only snap of that in that game, and obviously we practiced against it, and the doggone blitzer didn't blitz what he had really shown in other games.
“I think the blitzer made a mistake, to be very honest with you. Then all of a sudden he recovered and Jeff wasn't able to recover with him. So you look at it and you say that's how fine line it is when you play a team like Michigan State.”
He had two good options in Miller, one of the most explosive players in college football and the two-time Big Ten MVP, and Hyde, a powerful rusher who had lost a total of 6 yards on 208 carries on the season. The execution of the play simply just didn’t happen, as the only player who could have made the play on the other side got the job done as the Buckeyes had blocked everyone else.
With all that in mind, Herman said he hadn’t replayed the call all that often in his mind over the offseason.
“No. I wish I had something sexier, but no,” he said when asked if he had. “Maybe in the offseason, maybe in January and February as you try to build what this year’s offense is going to become, but once Aug. 4 hit or whatever, you put your head down and go full speed ahead.”
Of course, Herman and his staff have a chance to make amends this weekend with the No. 14 Buckeyes’ trip to take on No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing.
But short yardage has not necessarily been Ohio State's strong point this year without the inside-outside threat of Hyde and Miller. The Buckeyes were among the best in the nation in red-zone touchdown scoring the past few years -- the team's mark of 84.1 percent led the nation in 2013 -- but this year's squad sits at 68.9 percent in 2014. OSU went 1 for 4 on scoring TDs in the red zone last week in its win vs. Illinois, and the coaching staff has publicly said its plan to go hurry up and pound the middle in third- and fourth-and-short has been sniffed out of late.
On the macro level, those are just the markings of an offense that is much different than it was a year ago, with both Miller and Hyde gone because of injury and graduation, respectively. J.T. Barrett has piloted an attacked based more on ball distribution than last year’s physical and unrelenting ground attack, though the combination of the athletic Barrett, the dependable Ezekiel Elliott and lightning quick Curtis Samuel again has given the team one of the best running games in the nation.
And on the other side, Michigan State still boasts one of the best defenses in the nation, with Narduzzi again at the controls. It’ll be another measurement game for each staff, especially Herman, who looks forward to what has become an annual must-see battle of wits.
"He won the Broyles Award last year as the assistant coach of the year,” Herman said. “His defenses the last four or five years have been in the top 10 in the country in damn near every category, so it's an exciting challenge these last two years that we've played them. We've come out on top in one (a 17-16 win in 2012) and not so much in the other but, yeah, to answer your question it's a really exciting challenge."