Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
For a program entering its 123rd season of play, Ohio State football will look considerably different this fall. After a disappointing 6-7 record last season, first-year head coach Urban Meyer will not only install a new offensive scheme, but a new hope as well.
“It’s a new era for OSU football,” said OSU football historian Jack Park. “I’m not sure if there have been many head coaches that came into (a) new position with higher expectations. It’s because of his record. He’s been a winner everywhere he’s gone.”
OSU didn’t lack for wins during former coach Jim Tressel’s tenure from 2001-2011. They did, however, lack the offensive firepower seen in programs Meyer has coached, Park said.
From 2003-2010, Meyer’s teams at both the University of Utah and the University of Florida averaged about 35.6 points per game. In that same span, Tressel’s teams averaged a little more than 30 points per game. In 2004, 2007 and 2008, Meyer’s teams averaged more than 40 points per game, something Tressel’s Buckeyes never accomplished during his tenure in Columbus.
“The best part about Meyer’s offense was the excitement in watching each possession,” said Andrew Blatter, a second-year graduate student in public policy and management, who was an undergraduate at Utah when Meyer coached there. “It’s very unlike Tressel’s consistently conservative offense. Meyer isn’t afraid to take chances, and that keeps defenses on their toes.”
Meyer will attempt to install his spread offense at a program that has historically played smash-mouth football. The task ahead is very similar to the one former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez faced when he took the Michigan job in 2008, though his flavor of the spread offense is fundamentally different than Meyer’s. Rodriguez’s team struggled to a 3-9 record that season while the offense sputtered. John Bacon, a writer who wrote a book about Rodriguez’s tenure in Ann Arbor, said that he doesn’t believe OSU faces some of the challenges Michigan did when transitioning to the new offense.
“Michigan’s personnel didn’t fit the spread,” Bacon said. “Ohio State’s isn’t that far off. They have a quarterback in Braxton Miller who is well-suited for this offense. Michigan didn’t have that.”
Bacon said Meyer and Rodriguez’s spread offenses, which he said are schematically similar, depend more on exceptional quarterback play than most NFL offenses.
“I sat in on the quarterback meetings at Michigan for three years,” Bacon said. “I understood a third of the offense at the end. If you don’t have a qualified quarterback, this offense doesn’t work very well. It’s an extremely complicated offense. It’s high-speed chess with very large pieces.”
If quarterbacks are king in the spread offense, running backs and wide receivers are the bishops and rooks, supporting pieces capable of making game-changing plays. But Bacon says the offensive linemen are more than just pawns, and finding the right combination of guys up front is an understated challenge for teams transitioning to a spread offense.
“The offensive line is one of the more complicated parts,” Bacon said. “It’s a no-huddle system and you really have to move. Your lungs are as important as your arms in that offense and that is not how most linemen are trained.”
OSU’s offense will likely have time to work out some kinks this year. The Buckeyes do not enter conference play until the end of September, and of their four out-of-conference opponents, only California posted a winning record last season. Blatter said he expects that by the time OSU enters Big Ten play on the road against Michigan State on Sept. 29, the offense will be effective and exciting.
“I expect to see a lot of playmaking from Braxton Miller,” Blatter said. “Meyer’s teams at Utah were known for having exciting, aggressive offenses that scored early and often. I am hopeful that trend will continue this year at Ohio State.”
Park is more than hopeful.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Buckeye fan,” Park said. “With what our program went through last season, people were really ready for something new. Ready to put the past behind us and move forward.”
In Meyer’s spread offense, expect the ball to move forward too.