Of course you know by now the major topic of Ohio State football this offseason has been the installation of Urban Meyer’s spread offense. As a football strategy junky, I have found it fascinating to talk to the new coaches about their plans and the players about how they have absorbed everything. You can find example of that in our BuckeyeSports.com archives and in past issues of Buckeye Sports Bulletin (see here).
But before we go any farther, I thought it would be fun to take a look back this summer.
Although Ohio State has been known as the home of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses for more than half a century, there have been plenty of evolutions over the years, some that will probably surprise you.
For the next issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I examine some of these moves. Here’s a preview:
Woody Hayes took over for Wes Fesler, a former Buckeye who was a star end at Ohio State in the late 1920s. Fesler is one of eight three-time All-Americans to wear the Scarlet and Gray, but he fell out of favor in Columbus when his Buckeyes lost to Michigan in the “Snow Bowl” in 1950.
Fesler’s offense featured a mix of single wing and the T depending on the situation, but Hayes was strictly a practitioner of the T.
The switch proved to be a painful one as the Buckeyes offensive output slipped from 31.8 points per game to a meager 12.1. Their 109 points in nine games were the fewest for the team since Fesler’s first OSU squad managed only 60 in 1947.
The move had a notable negative effect on Vic Janowicz, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1950. Featured often out of the single wing, Janowicz led the Big Ten in total offense (703 yards) and scoring (48 points) in conference play in ’50 but became just a cog in Hayes’ machine as a senior. He led the team in rushing (376 yards) but quarterback Tony Curcillo took over the passing lead. Janowicz touched the ball 138 times in ’51, 60 fewer than the year before.
Hayes eventually got that T formation humming, of course. It helped produce national championships in 1954, ’57 and ’61, but his program hit a snag in the early ’60s after a decision by the university faculty council denied the Buckeyes a trip to the 1962 Rose Bowl.
That hurt recruiting in the short term, but Hayes rallied to bring in what would prove to be one of the best classes of all time for 1967. Its members were ineligible to play as freshmen, but they began to build their legend during practices that fall when they would give the varsity a run for its money.
When the youngsters were ready to take over in ’68, Hayes gave them a new weapon courtesy newly hired assistant coach George Chaump, who suggested he supplement his venerable T attack with the I formation being made famous by USC.
The move turned out to be a good one: The Buckeyes doubled their scoring output (from 16.1 to 32.3 points per game), went undefeated and won the national championship.
Rex Kern, a sophomore who took over at quarterback in ’68, told me in a past interview that did more to take advantage of the talent Hayes had accumulated.
“The I formation gave you the opportunity to get around the corner much quicker,” he said. “The old-timers will remember the old button-shoe (his term for the Fullhouse T) offense was from tackle to tackle. The I formation was really from tackle to sideline, so it really just expanded the field and gave us more attack points. We could put our skill people against our opponents’ skill people versus us putting our interior line against the interior defense. We were good at either one, but this just gave us a better opportunity. Then when we got into short yardage, we went back to our pure button-shoe offense and attacked from tackle to tackle.”
(Aside: I found this fascinating in light of today’s move from the I formation to the spread. Similar principles at work. We’ll discuss that more in the future…)
Kern threw for 972 yards and ran for 534 more in ’68 while fullback Jim Otis rumbled for 985 yards and halfbacks Leo Hayden, John Brockington and Dave Brungard 732 more.
The end of the Hayes era gave way to the leadership of one of his former assistants, Earle Bruce. The men shared many common traits when it came to coaching football, but Bruce recognized he needed to open things up some to take advantage of another sophomore quarterback who like Kern wore No. 10.
This time it was Art Schlichter, one of the most ballyhooed recruits in Ohio history and a freshman starter in ’78.
While the basic offense remained the same, Schlichter was allowed to show off his famous right arm a bit more often.
After complete 87 of 175 passes for 1,250 yards in ’78, Schlichter went 105 for 200 for 1,816 yards as a sophomore.
Schlichter told me in an 2009 interview the offense became more complex under Bruce, but there was one thing that stayed the same: All of the passing was out of play action, regardless of down and distance.
“That was a result of our protection,” said Schlichter, who likened the offensive progression to moving from the Ice Age to the Stone Age. “Coach Bruce liked the turn-back protection. He thought it protected the quarterback as much as anything, so we used that protection to play-action pass. Third-and-long we were throwing out of a play-action set, which I had hoped that we would have gotten away from that, but we never really did.”
Schlichter, who has run into repeated serious legal problems since the conclusion of his college career and is awaiting a return to prison at this time, ended up with just about every Ohio State passing record before he was finished. His single-season record of 2,551 has since been broken three times, but his career marks of 7,547 yards, 951 pass attempts and 46 interceptions remain school records.
This might be hard to believe today, but an actual headline in the April 1988 issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin declared, “OSU Offense To Drop-Back This Season.”
That’s right: new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto’s plan to install a drop-back passing game for new head coach John Cooper was big news less than 25 years ago.
Buckeye Sports Bulletin covered Ohio State’s new offense in 1988
“All we’re trying to do is give the offense a few more weapons to try and play the game with,” Colletto said then. “The drop-back will open up the game and make it more difficult for defenses to gang up on us. We’re trying to become a proficient drop-back passing team.
“And we will pass on first down. That is something we keep careful track of.”
Although everyone left spring practice saying the right things that year, early results were not too promising.
The passing game actually lost some proficiency (from a 54.1 percent completion rate to 51.8) from 1987 to ’88 and the offense managed only five more total points (229). The Buckeyes stumbled from 6-4-1 in Bruce’s last campaign to 4-6-1 in ’88 under Cooper, but the offense was hardly to blame for that.
Cooper commented openly about his surprise at the lack of talent he found on the roster, and he was forced to break in a new quarterback that season in sophomore Greg Frey (who spoke glowingly of the new attack as one similar to what he had run at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati under the guidance of a young intern named Urban Meyer).
For more on how these changes were implemented and how they panned out, be sure to check out the next print edition of BSB scheduled for publication in the first week of July. We also examine the move from Cooper’s version of the pro-style offense to Jim Tressel’s.
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