If you’re looking at the stat sheet and attempting to figure out the biggest issues for Ohio State in a relatively disappointing season last year, it’s hard to put much blame on the offense. As a whole, the group ranked at or near the top in most major statistical categories.
The one area where the Buckeyes weren’t elite, however, was in rushing the ball. The Scarlet and Gray averaged 180.31 rushing yards per game, which ranked No. 47 in the country. But in Ohio State’s two losses, the rushing numbers dropped.
As a team, the Buckeyes averaged 5.5 yards per carry for the season with running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams both hovering around the seven-yards-per-carry mark. But in the two biggest games of the year, losses to both Oregon and Michigan, those numbers plummeted, with the Scarlet and Gray averaging 4.1 yards per carry against the Ducks and just 2.1 against the Wolverines.
No. 2 Ohio State opens the 2022 season on Saturday against No. 5 Notre Dame hoping to be more balanced and not rely so much on a passing attack, which had more than double the yards a year ago. The Buckeyes face another marquee opponent out of the gates but believed they have learned from last season.
“You gotta have a balance,” tight end Cade Stover said this week. “You can’t be one-sided either way. We’ve got guys that are talented in that aspect for sure and we could go one way, I guess. But that’s all part of toughness, part of balancing this game out and we’ve got to start running to the ball.”
What hurt the Scarlet and Gray the most, especially against Michigan, was the inability to pick up the tough yard, specifically in short-yardage situations. Too often, Ohio State was stopped on the ground on third-and-short, for instance, or elected to throw the ball when the running game should be able to get the job done.
Yes, the Buckeyes had the passing talent to throw in those situations, and that got the team by enough to go 11-2 and win the Rose Bowl, but when it came to tough situations in the biggest games, the Scarlet and Gray weren’t able to get the job done, earning the reputation as a “soft” team heading into the offseason.
That “soft” label wasn’t just on the offense. The defense struggled to stop the run in both losses. Oregon rushed for 269 yards and three touchdowns and Michigan rushed for 297 yards and six scores. Both teams ran through the Ohio State defense, which ranked No. 28 nationally against the run, as if it was butter.
That can’t happen if the Buckeyes plan to have a better result against the Irish.
“That’s really where we all start is stopping the run,” Scarlet and Gray head coach Ryan Day said this week. “And they do a good job of running the football. So we’re gonna have to do a great job of being assignment sound and playing with great fundamentals and doing a great job on third down to get off the field. The same thing on offense. You have to establish the run. It’s very, very important and something we’ve been working very hard on.”
Not surprisingly, Notre Dame also sees the importance of being able to run the ball. While the Scarlet and Gray defense is expected to be improved after the changes new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles made this offseason, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman still knows establishing a rushing attack is key against Ohio State.
“I look at the Oregon game and Oregon offensively was able to run the ball and do some different things and I know we’re facing a different defense but still the ability to establish a run game offensively,” he said this week. “And Ohio State’s offense was really good that game. And then you look at the Michigan game, again it was the ability for Michigan to run the ball. And again, I know we’re talking about a different defensive scheme, but the ability to run the ball, the ability to establish the run game to open up different areas in the pass game is, to me, really important.
“You look at some of the games I think they’ve lost in the past couple of years and offensively you’ve got to be able to take control of the game in terms of holding onto the football, in terms of establishing long drives. And that’s going to be something that we have to do if we want a chance to win this game.”
While Freeman realizes how potent this Buckeye offense is, he also believes stopping the run is key. A passing attack featuring quarterback C.J. Stroud and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was good enough to beat most teams on the Scarlet and Gray’s scheduled a year ago but when it came to the biggest games, this was not enough.
That’s why Freeman has stressed to his team that making Ohio State as one-dimensional as possible will be important on Saturday night.
“Ever since coach Freeman said that (about stopping the run), I made it my mission,” Notre Dame defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola said. “I’m on a mission. I carry myself like that. It’s more than football. I’m on a drill. He done said stop the run so that’s what we’re gonna do, stop the run. He made it loud and clear.”
If the Buckeyes are able to run the ball, it won’t just be on Henderson and Williams who have success. These two running backs largely did their part a year ago, but it was often the offensive line that didn’t get enough push in key situations.
This year, the Scarlet and Gray return three starters but add in two new guards in Matthew Jones and Donovan Jackson. Both players are talented and have seen the field, giving Day trust that this line can get the job done.
“I feel good about where our offensive line is,” Day said. “I think that we’ve had a really good camp. I think (offensive line coach Justin Frye)’s done a great job with them. But now they’ve gotta go put it on the field. And that’s all that really matters.”
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On the defensive side, it will first be up to Ohio State’s defensive line to do their job, followed by linebackers rallying to the ball to stop the Irish’s rushing attack. While that didn’t happen enough a year ago, especially in these bigger games, the Buckeyes believe they have improved in this department.
“Just seeing how well our D-line has played during camp,” safety Ronnie Hickman said of why he’s confident the Scarlet and Gray will be a better run-stopping team in 2022. “And sitting in those meeting rooms and watching them go to work and stuff like that, it looks different, it feels different. Coming from the back end, as far as the running back getting into my level without being touched and stuff like that, coming downhill, I’m like, ‘Alright, could y’all let me make a tackle or something like that?’ But just seeing how those guys handled the line up front, how they’re moving and showing different looks to the offense is something that I’m thankful for as a guy in the secondary.”
It didn’t take long last year for Ohio State to realize it had a rushing problem. This season, the Buckeyes will have to be good, on both sides of the ball, in that department. That starts in Week 1.