What we learned last week: For all the time we spent discussing who would play quarterback for Ohio State this season, the 17-14 loss to Michigan State confirmed focus was misplaced.
The issues were rooted either in other personnel, the coaches’ faith in that personnel or the staff’s ability to use said personnel.
The coaches without question know more about their players than anyone on the outside, but that doesn’t mean they always get it right.
What’s curious about how this has all gone down is the lack of use of various plays and players that anyone who has watched the games — sometimes maybe even just highlights — can tell work.
Normally that would be absurd, but get on Youtube and Google “J.T. Barrett long touchdown pass” or “Cardale Jones trucks a guy” and see what you find.
Nothing brings the questions about Ohio State’s game planning more into focus than this: In the same weather conditions, the team playing two backup quarterbacks threw as many passes as the one with the reigning Big Ten Quarterback of the Year in the game and the most recent Big Ten Championship Game MVP on the bench.
Past performance is not always indicative of future success, but it generally does warrant a reprise. When early struggles playing within what can fairly be called the most basic of Ohio State’s strategies occurred and there were hardly any adjustments, it was fair to wonder why.
The idea they were holding back something for the bigger games was on the table, but that turned out to be only wishful thinking.
So Ohio State’s offensive issues this season haven’t been flukes, and they haven’t been a matter of lack of execution.
Maybe the Buckeyes turned down the intensity when they found out Connor Cook was not going to play, but I doubt it. And if they did, that probably would have worn off fairly quickly once the pads starting popping.
Having turned this issue over and over against for the past few days, I have come to the conclusion Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State was not only the worst performance I have seen live in 15 years but also the hardest to explain.
There were more than a couple of times in the course of covering Jim Tressel we wondered just what was going on with a given game plan, but I think every one of them had some sort of plausible explanation. Not perfect, sure, but at least something better than, “They literally did not make a game plan this week,” which seems to be surprisingly high on the list of explanations that make the most sense this time.
The bottom line is Ohio State coaches can’t or won’t believe they can conjure up a balanced passing game. And in reality, their approach to trying to run the ball has been surprisingly limited, too. So we had misplaced questions about Cardale Jones in the first half of the season and misplaced questions from Ezekiel Elliott last week.
With Jones, it seemed to be all or nothing with long-developing deep passes that were bothered by protection issues. With Barrett, it has felt more like, well, basically nothing even though we know from past experiences there are plenty of ways Barrett can hurt a defense with his arm, too.
Neither has played with confidence as the coaching staff hasn’t shown much confidence in either, but MSU was a reminder of an underlying reason Ohio State might have been better served by things working out with Jones at quarterback: Having Jones under center helped Urban Meyer protect himself from his worst habits.
What happened against Michigan State lat week was largely a repeat of the 2012 Wisconsin game. Or 2012 Michigan. Or 2014 Penn State. Or 2014 Virginia Tech. Or half the 2014 Michigan game.
If everything isn’t clicking, Meyer’s answer is to run the quarterback. Sometimes that works, especially if the quarterback is dynamic enough to cover up mistakes or the opposing personnel isn’t up to the task.
Going into the game last week, it wasn’t hard to conclude Michigan State only had one path to victory on either side of the ball.
That turned out to be true.
That Ohio State had some limitations wasn’t entirely surprising, either, but a lack of answers was because it remains unbelievable the Buckeyes haven’t tried some of the things that have worked in the past (gap blocking, ball-control passing, etc.) more often.
As an aside, it is kind of amusing to see the result of that game being spun both as Ohio State being exposed and Michigan State proving itself. I can tell you with some certainty both of those things are not true. Michigan State played probably a C+ game while Ohio State played an F.
The Spartans still have all the issues they have had all season with two possible exceptions: Their offensive line might be back but now their quarterback is a question. That’s not a good trade if future coaches are paying attention and actually willing to react.
Ohio State didn’t do anything to attack MSU’s weaknesses on either side of the ball. The Spartan secondary is still going to be ripe for the picking for any team it will play from here on out (That could include Penn State, but the Nittany Lions have made a habit of making the same types of coaching mistakes Ohio State did on Saturday.)
MSU might end up deserving to get into the playoff based on how its resume compares to the rest of the top 10, but the Spartans are still not a threat nationally based on what they have shown throughout this season. The offensive line getting healthy enough to run the ball consistently is a big plus. It doesn’t offset the lack of a healthy Connor Cook or a reliable secondary. If Cook is able to return to 100 percent, MSU becomes a more physical if less absolutely explosive Big 12 team essentially.)
What we can expect to learn this week: I have to admit I have no idea what Ohio State is going to do at Michigan.
Well, I guess I have two potential scenarios in my head, but I have no idea which will come to pass.
The loss to Michigan State could be a pressure release valve.
Whether that is positive or negative for the Buckeyes is open for interpretation.
They could go to Michigan without a care and play well… or not care if they play well.
For what it’s worth, being a favorite hasn’t really been a good role for Ohio State against Michigan for a while now.
The Buckeyes have hardly ever played up to expectations since shutting down the Wolverines in Ann Arbor in 2007.
Yes, they’ve had some big wins over that time span, but even that speaks to just how bad Michigan was in 2008 and 2010 that Ohio State could win handily despite looking out of sync half the day.
Last year a couple of big plays at the end overshadowed an inconsistent performance overall on both sides of the ball, especially for a defense that got pushed around by a team that couldn’t run the ball most of the year.
I think the hype around Michigan has been a little overblown this year, but there is no doubt Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines playing with confidence.
The Wolverines are still an average team with some real standouts on defense, but they have won a couple of coin-flip games while also losing a big one, of course. They also punked decent BYU and Penn State teams while knocking out Northwestern early.
Harbaugh and his staff have had a positive impact on the offensive design, but they are also fortunate to have a bunch of highly recruited players who were probably playing too early under Brady Hoke rounding into better versions of themselves as 21- and 22-year-olds than they were when they were younger.
I would expect Michigan to feast on any weakness Ohio State shows, but it is still the Buckeyes’ game to win if they show up and play the way they have been expected to all year.
Whether you believe that will actually happen or not, you can probably justify your conclusion fairly easily.