All things considered, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer was relatively pleased with his team’s 28-3 victory over Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
His starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett, was back in the lineup after a one-game suspension. His star running back, junior Ezekiel Elliott, continued his Heisman-worthy season and moved into third place in school history for career rushing yards. And on the other side of the ball, his defense smothered the Fighting Illini, allowing just three points.
Despite all of the aforementioned accomplishments, Meyer said he wanted to see his team be a little more balanced, and he knows how that will occur.
“That starts right now with pass protection,” he said on Saturday, following the win. “That’s the only negative.”
Meyer said in the upcoming week, the Buckeyes are going to work “extremely hard” to fix the issues in pass protection, especially because they need to protect Barrett in the pocket, which didn’t happen enough against Illinois.
As a result, the passing game was not nearly as dynamic as it had been in the past.
“I wouldn’t call it exceptional, because I think he got pressured a little bit,” Meyer said of Barrett’s performance.
Barrett only threw for a 150 yards and one touchdown, with an interception.
The interception, however, is a perfect example of why the cracks in the pass protection need to be sealed before the Michigan State Spartans arrive in Columbus on Saturday.
With the third quarter nearing an end, OSU was in the midst of an eight-play, 51 yard drive well into Illini territory.
On second down, Barrett dropped back to pass, but the pocket quickly crumbled. As the redshirt sophomore tried to find redshirt senior Nick Vannett across the middle, his elbow was hit, which caused the ball to look more like a floating feather than an actual throw.
It landed right in the arms of junior safety and Hilliard, Ohio, native Caleb Day, who returned it 19 yards.
The pressure was applied by junior Carroll Phillips, who was supposed to be blocked on the play by redshirt sophomore left guard Billy Price.
“I went to pull, and he came faster than what I was ready for,” Price said describing the play. “I took a step back to regain my balance to able to take him out, and by that time, I was already in J.T.’s lap.”
Price credited Carroll with making the play, but while talking about the sequence, he was visibly disappointed with himself in allowing the deflection to happen.
One area where Price is not disappointed, however, is in run blocking, evidenced by how the offensive line routinely clears gaping holes for Elliott to run through. The St. Louis native turned in his 15th consecutive game of over 100 yards rushing on Saturday by tallying 181 yards with two touchdowns.
“Us, as the offensive line, we really do enjoy blocking for (Elliott),” Price said. “That’s what we love to do.”
But, to find the balance of creating running lanes fit for a semitrailer truck to drive through and a sturdy pocket for Barrett to pass behind will not happen overnight, according to Price.
Fixing pass protection, Price said, is extremely difficult because it is hard to highlight one thing as the definitive issue.
“It’s something you just have to continue to improve,” he said. “It’s a craft. It’s not just something like run blocking where you can just go slug somebody. It’s an artform.”
But, this week and beyond, Price said the O-line will work diligently to develop its art further. It’s what the “Slobs” have to do for the offense to strike the necessary balance.
“You have to develop that skill,” he said. “It’s something that, over time, you just have to continue to get better and that’s something that we can constantly work on.”
Senior left tackle Taylor Decker agreed, adding that the Buckeyes can’t just run the ball “40 times” a game and expect to keep winning. Fixing the pass protection before Michigan State arrives in Columbus for its scheduled game against OSU on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. is imperative, Decker said.
“It’s something we’ll have to work on,” he said. “Michigan State has some very good pass rushers.”
Meyer is confident, though, that all the work the offensive line puts forth will pay off because of the talent the unit already possesses.
“They’re good enough,” he said. “That’s the challenge I will have for our coaches. It’s not just them. We’re going to hammer (pass protection) hard this week.”