As new players sift in and out of a college football program, the identity of the team ebbs and flows. At Ohio State, that’s especially pronounced when it comes to the running game.
After finishing fifth nationally in rushing yards per game last season, the Buckeyes are ranked 81st two weeks into 2014. In OSU’s most recent game — a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech under the Ohio Stadium lights on Saturday — the team managed a measly 108 yards on the ground.
Of those 108 yards, just 58 came from players listed as running backs on the depth chart. Redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett accounted for 70 yards, while taking 24 of the team’s 40 total carries in the game. Sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson had negative five yards on two carries, while the team was credited with negative 15 yards.
While Barrett spent much of the game running for his life as the pocket broke down around him, the Hokies succeeded in keeping Buckeyes’ playbook largely closed. Redshirt-senior offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said after the loss the running game is important when it comes to setting up the rest of the offense, but the Buckeyes have not been able to establish their ground game so far this season.
“The run game opens up the entire offense,” Baldwin said. “You start play action and drop back passes they (the opposition) are not ready for. It really just opens up everything and we just weren’t able to get it started.”
While the Buckeyes tried to use the passing game to open up the running game against Virginia Tech — Barrett had 29 pass attempts compared to just 15 in week one against Navy — Barrett’s nine completions didn’t cut it as the Hokies kept the pressure on Barrett throughout the game.
Two games into the season, OSU coach Urban Meyer said this year’s Buckeyes want to emulate the 2013 team’s offensive identity — albeit with more focus on the passing game — but didn’t have a chance to do it against the Midshipmen or the Hokies.
“Our offensive identity would be last year with a little more balance and throwing the ball is who we’d like to be,” Meyer said Monday. “That’s kind of what we’re built for schematically.”
Meyer went on to say that the running game this season should feature more of a perimeter attack — partially because of the absence of former Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde — but the Hokies’ defense negated that.
With the running game stalled, the team turned to the air, which OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton said made it difficult to get rolling on offense.
“Any time you feel one-dimensional in a game like that, it’s very frustrating,” Drayton said Monday. “Doesn’t mean the game is going to stop because you’re frustrated, we’ve just got to find the rhythm against a defense like that.”
Meyer said he doesn’t expect to see another defense like Virginia Tech — except, perhaps, against Michigan State — but Drayton said the Buckeyes’ offense should “absolutely” have the ability to attack any defense. He added that in order to do that, the team has to keep Barrett out of pressure.
“We have to do a better job of protecting our quarterback, a young quarterback who’s experiencing some things for the first time,” Drayton said. “We’ve got to make him feel confident in the people around him.”
Out of last year’s offensive line — which was successful in protecting the quarterback — four have moved on to the NFL while the fifth, junior Taylor Decker, slid over to left tackle. Along with those four linemen, the loss of Hyde has forced OSU to try to re-imagine the running game.
Drayton said losing Hyde isn’t necessarily good or bad, but simply forces OSU to change its style.
Hyde now plays for the San Francisco 49ers and tallied 50 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in his NFL debut Sunday.
Through two games, OSU’s new production hasn’t materialized as the best rushing output from a running back was freshman Curtis Samuel’s 45 yards against Navy.
While Samuel’s debut was promising as he averaged 6.4 yards per carry, he was handed the ball just five times against the Hokies, totaling 26 yards. He has been the most efficient running back in the offense, but sophomore Ezekiel Elliott has had the most carries at 20, and redshirt-senior Rod Smith — who was listed as a co-starter with Elliott and Samuel — has totaled just two carries, both against Navy, so far this season.
“We have a lot of things different right now,” Drayton said. “Offensively we have to fit our skill set, and what they (the running backs) bring to the table is a lot different than what (Hyde) was able to bring to the table last year.”
The Buckeyes’ running game is set for another chance to establish an identity on Saturday. OSU is scheduled to take on Kent State at noon at Ohio Stadium.