This Week in Big Ten Football looks first at Ohio State’s offense under Urban Meyer, whose scheme might have just evolved beyond its name.
Thursday on his weekly radio show, Urban Meyer declared the read option dead in his current version of the Ohio State offense. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but we had to get your attention somehow.
What he actually said: “When you hear spread option, it cracks me up when I hear that. We don’t run really an option very much at all and it’s more of a pro-style from a spread set. So it’s a much different offense than what it was years ago.”
While that made headlines, it’s news a long time coming.
Meyer arrived in Columbus in late in 2011 amid great excitement, not only because of his past winning ways but his reputation as an offensive innovator who had created a unique attack out of various concepts new and old.
In his first season, he and offensive coordinator Tom Herman took an offense that had been one-dimensional (and mostly awful) in 2011 and made it…. one-dimensional but mostly awesome. That probably had more to do with player development than Xs and Os because the offensive line took innumerable steps forward under new coach Ed Warinner and Braxton Miller was much more ready to play as a sophomore than a true freshman. Certainly strength and conditioning guru Mickey Marotti deserves a tip of the cap here, too, not to mention running backs coach Stan Drayton’s work with Carlos Hyde.
The following spring, Meyer and Herman admitted they hadn’t really used much option en route to an unbeaten season.
“We ran two-back power and we ran two-back tight zone,” Herman said in the spring of 2013. “We did not have all of the misdirection, perimeter pieces to our offense that we would like so it became a very pro-style offense from the shotgun, which you can do. Our two base plays are two-back run plays – two-back zone and two-back power – and then like you said single wing where to gain that numbers advantage your quarterback becomes your ball carrier.”
Meyer wasn’t ready to give up the ghost at that time, though.
“In theory, what is a spread offense?” Meyer said. “There’s a read component and you force the defense to defend 53 1/3 yards. The Ohio State Buckeyes did not do that a year ago. They didn’t have to defend it. And then you have the vertical component, and that’s all speed. That’s creating space and guys in space doing things with the ball.”
And yet the Buckeyes thrived offensively anyway thanks to a road-grading offensive line, power tailback with breakaway speed and a quarterback who is hard to tackle even in a phone booth.
(It’s worth mentioning Meyer probably never had the same type of offensive line and certainly never had the same type of running back/quarterback combo at his previous stops as a head coach — even Florida, where his offense set records but also began to fizzle out toward the end of his tenure.)
After utilizing mostly the same personnel in 2013, the talk all of the following offseason was about getting back to making the quarterback a distributor. Even though Miller was set to be back for his senior season, they wanted to take pressure off of him to make plays with his legs. That meant limiting if not eliminating the single-wing type plays except when they were absolutely necessary and focusing on getting the ball to a maturing cast of skill players. The zone reads were said to remain a necessary element of the offense, but then again they had not been that important in actual games during the first two years Meyer was in Columbus, remember?
That offseason focus in spreading the wealth no doubt made the sudden forced transition to J.T. Barrett at least a little bit easier when Miller re-injured his shoulder only a couple of weeks before the season opener against Navy.
Barrett appeared to be adept at running the read option, but still the stuff Meyer calls single-wing football was more the focus when Ohio State needed yards from him on the ground and teams were taking away the tailback. (And it’s a fair bet there were a lot of straight handoffs that could have been perceived as reads throughout the season if you weren’t the one who called the play.)
More importantly, Barrett was good at making sure the Buckeyes were in the right play and knowing where to go with the ball in the passing game. Even more importantly than that, a much greater number of perimeter playmakers (Mike Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and a more mature Dontre Wilson) were available for utilization by the time Barrett became the quarterback.
Ironically, Barrett suffered a season-ending injury when he made a bad read on the option against Michigan, opening the door for Cardale Jones to become the starter, and by the time Jones took over, the supporting cast was even better than what Barrett inherited. That was thanks to the continued growth of Marshall at slot receiver and the evolution of a young offensive line into one that was hard to differentiate from the one that mashed opponents for the previous two seasons. Devin Smith also decided to go into beast mode all of the time rather than occasionally once the calendar hit December.
Now Jones, most of the offensive line and most of the playmakers are back, so you can probably fill in the blanks regarding strategy, but there is something else about the read option we should keep in mind: At it’s core it’s a constraint play. That means it’s only really there to punish teams for overcommitting on the base plays, and if they can’t stop the base plays, it isn’t needed at all.
That’s kind of where Ohio State is now thanks to the way Meyer has recruited and Warinner’s work with the offensive line (which still has three Jim Tressel recruits in the starting lineup). That’s also in all likelihood different than what Meyer faced as head coach at Bowling Green, Utah or even in the first half of his time at Florida.
Zone read is also far from the only way to keep defenses honest. Meyer can call for a throw deep or bubble screens to punish teams for loading the box (not to mention mix up blocking schemes if he still wants to run it), and with Jones or Barrett in the game, those plays mean someone more dangerous is getting the ball than if the quarterback keeps it. Ultimately, too, the threat of the quarterback run is almost as valuable as the actual run itself (I don’t see opposing coaches telling their backside defenders to forget about the quarterback keeping the ball on a handoff because of something Meyer said on his radio show).
So Meyer wasn’t really breaking any news on his radio show so much as admitting something that has been a long time coming: Ohio State doesn’t run much option anymore because the Buckeyes don’t need to most of the time.
In another sense, it’s fair to conclude the man who is among those credited with inventing a style of offense unique to college has moved on because college defensive coordinators might have caught up to that scheme but they still can’t catch his recruiting and player development. The more pro-quality players he has, the more “pro-style” his offense can be — no matter how they lineup.
Other Ohio State stories from the past week:
Meyer praised Jim Tressel, who is going into the Varsity ‘O’ Hall of Fame this weekend, for the way he ran his program at Ohio State.
So what else is going on in the Big Ten East this week?
Penn State got back on its feet last week, and the Nittany Lions have to feel like they have a good chance to take another step forward this week as they play host to the Scarlet Knights, whose best offensive player is suspended because of an ugly-sounding altercation. Rutgers was already going to be without its best defensive player.
Michigan State scored a big win and now has to deal with both the mental challenges of avoiding a letdown and the physical challenges of facing Air Force’s triple-option attack. The Spartans have a senior stepping up at receiver and a sophomore defensive lineman they hope is already starting to reach his potential.
Remember how Maryland was one of those teams that seemed to go with the safe choice at quarterback to start the season? He’s out and the guy everyone thought would win the job entering camp is in. Will it help? They also made some changes at receiver, including a former Ohio State verbal commit.
Meanwhile, Michigan appears to be committed to Jake Rudock at quarterback. The Wolverines might not have their best cornerback against UNLV, but that might not matter much based on how the Runnin’ Rebels have looked so far.
Indiana hopes a win against FIU in which the defense made some clutch plays is a sign of better things to come, but the Hoosiers face a potent opponent this week in Western Kentucky.
As for the rest of the league this weekend, Michigan has the aforementioned likely walkover while Maryland has a winnable game against South Florida.