It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Ohio State proved that from a season-long perspective in 2014, recovering from an embarrassing home loss to Virginia Tech to win 13 straight games and a national championship. The Buckeyes have proved it in games as well, overcoming first-quarter deficits to win nine times in Urban Meyer’s tenure.
In both contexts the end is far more important than the beginning, but the two are certainly not independent of one another. That loss to the Hokies, for example, nearly cost the Buckeyes a spot in the College Football Playoff and a chance to prove they were the best team in the country a year ago.
Ask Meyer and he’ll surely say that he’d rather have faced zero first-quarter deficits in his time with the Buckeyes. Slow starts affect how a team must finish to arrive at the desired result, and if the Buckeyes start a game sluggish enough times it will likely come back to bite them at some point. That was the case in the three losses of the Meyer era as Ohio State failed to overcome first-quarter holes in the loss to Virginia Tech as well as its two 2013 defeats to Michigan State and Clemson.
Although Ohio State remains undefeated on the season, the Buckeyes have underperformed in the eyes of many thanks in large part to slow starts.
By virtually every possible measure, this year’s team is starting slower than any Ohio State team Meyer has coached. The Buckeyes have finished strong in games this season, outscoring opponents 94-34 in the fourth quarter, but hold just a 45-20 advantage in first quarters this season.
Despite a 49-7 romp over Rutgers on Oct. 24, the first-quarter problems persisted for the Buckeyes in New Jersey.
“I think that’s one of the things that we really wanted to do,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said of starting fast. “Our first goal for the game was to win the game and play fast. Our second goal for the game was to score on the opening drive. We didn’t do that, but we were really trying and then we ended up turning the ball over.”
As Warinner said, Ohio State fumbled on its first drive of the game against the Scarlet Knights but got going on its second, using a nine-play, 42-yard drive to get on the board with an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown just before the first quarter expired. Even with the late touchdown, their 5.6 points in first quarters this season are the Buckeyes’ worst average of any quarter.
The goal for Ohio State is to reduce that quarter-to-quarter variance going forward.
“The thing I’m looking for is consistency, which every school in the country is looking for that,” Meyer said. “You’re exceptional if you can do that each week, and we’re not exceptional (right now).”
The Buckeyes are the nation’s No. 1-ranked team but have slowly loosened their grasp on that position as more and more first-place votes in both the coaches’ and Associated Press poll have gone to other teams. Those voters might have a different view of Ohio State if they waited to watch the Buckeyes until the second quarter.
Through eight games, the Buckeyes have scored in the first five minutes just once this season as a 65-yard scoring drive against Western Michigan put the Buckeyes on the board 1:34 into the game. That marked one of just two occasions that Ohio State has scored on its first offensive drive this season.
The Buckeyes have started the second quarter trailing three times and tied twice, struggling to start strong this season. Ohio State’s average first offensive drive this season has lasted just five plays and traveled just 28 yards, one play and 6 yards fewer than any other time in Meyer’s Ohio State tenure and a full 19 yards worse than last year’s average.
All of that is new for the Buckeyes as their ability to hit the ground running was a hallmark of the 2014 and 2013 squads. The Buckeyes scored on 10 of 15 first drives last season and nine of 14 such drives in 2013. Even if Ohio State plays in 15 games again this season and scores on its first opportunity in every remaining game, it will still fail to match the 2014 team in first-drive scores.
Following Ohio State’s win over Penn State, Warinner said that the slow starts are in part a product of what other teams are doing schematically, and tight ends coach Tim Hinton agreed.
“There’s a little bit of X’s and O’s with it,” Hinton said. “Obviously, they come in with a game plan too. What they’re trying to do is not let momentum get started early. If we get pretty good momentum, I think we’re a hard team to handle. They’ve done a pretty good job of trying to put some pressure on us.”
The Buckeyes haven’t just failed to score on most of their first drives this season, they’ve started the game with some catastrophic mistakes.
Ohio State started strong against Virginia Tech with a touchdown and moved the ball 39 yards on its first drive against Hawaii before failing to convert a third down. The struggles began to manifest themselves in the third game of the season against Northern Illinois. In that contest, the Buckeyes began things with a 5-yard penalty. An incomplete pass and rush for no gain followed before Cardale Jones threw an interception. That was one of three times this season Ohio State has started the game with a drive going for negative yardage as it also did so against Indiana and Penn State. On two of those three occasions, Ohio State’s opponent scored on the ensuing possession.
First-down struggles were the culprit on each of those occasions, putting the Buckeyes behind schedule and forcing them into difficult situations on third down.
“We need to do a better job of that,” Hinton said. “It’s certainly being addressed.
“If you play ahead of the chains, you’ve got a pretty good chance of success all game long. You play behind the chains and you look at third-down efficiency, obviously, we’ve had more third-and-longs this season than we’ve had for a long time. So your third-down efficiency is not going to be as good when you’re third-and-long. There were a couple stretches in our time here at Ohio State where all of a sudden our first-down efficiency was so good, guess what our third-down efficiency was?
“When you’re third-and-8 and third-and-9 and those situations now, it makes you hustle.”
The early struggles the Buckeyes have had this season – highlighted by failures to score in the first quarter in games against Indiana and Penn State – have not come back to hurt the team thanks to the in-game adjustments of the coaching staff.
Opponents have thrown everything they can at Ohio State to start the season, whether that’s switching their front to a 3-4 as Hawaii did or using unique blitzes as most teams have this season, and it’s resulted in uneven performances for the Scarlet and Gray. Once they settle in, however, the Buckeyes have made the right changes and blown out most of the team’s they’ve faced.
“The big thing is can you get that thought to that player and get him to understand the adjustment to go on the field and do a great job of it? That’s the part that I see really getting better, and that’s the part that you can see us doing better and better and better because every defense is going to walk in and make us adjust throughout a game,” Hinton said.
“Coach Meyer talks about it all the time. Preparation doesn’t stop until the foot hits the ball. Then all of a sudden, a game is about adjustments.”
Ohio State has proved it can make adjustments throughout a game and overcome slow starts this year, but if the Buckeyes can get going quicker, as they have in previous seasons under Meyer, it would take some pressure off the team and the coaching staff.
“We just think it’s important because when you work that hard all week and you put together a plan, you like to get a reward early and get some momentum and get the offense going,” Warinner said. “Scoring early is something we want to really emphasize coming down the stretch here, get off to fast starts.”
While it’s all about how you finish, starting fast certainly doesn’t hurt.