Seeking Compromise with Running Game

By Keith on September 29, 2010 at 4:10p

With four games in the books, the march to an undefeated season has gone to plan so far for Ohio State.   Other than special teams, it’s difficult to find much to complain about at this point.  The defense is stout, the offense is scoring points in bunches and our main man under center is continuing to evolve into a very good quarterback.   But, there are always areas of improvement and one such growing concern among some is our running game. 

The angst seems to be legitimate on some levels.   While the rushing stats look positive, they are less so when you remove Terrelle Pryor from the equation.  For instance, against Ohio the running backs only had 8 of 21 carries, in the first three quarters, that gained more than three yards. Additionally, both Brandon Saine and Boom Herron are averaging less than 50 yards per game on the ground.  Even scarier, this has been accomplished against largely poor defensive teams.  These numbers draw critics, one of which is Big Ten Network anaylst Gary DiNardo.  His preference is to have a workhorse get the bulk of the carries because splitting the carries between two average backs is somehow not as good even if the overall numbers are relatively equal.   

Certainly, I think most Buckeyes would wish Boom or Zoom would distinguish themselves as the clear cut leader.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t taken place yet.   In fact, an argument could be made that the clear cut leaders are the two youngsters in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry.   Hall brings the ability to start/stop and change directions as good as any of the backs and Berry just rips off chunks of yards almost every time he gets a carry to go along with his sprinter speed.  So, it shouldn’t come as surprise some are making the case that it’s time for a change insisting the younger backs are ready to be shoved to primetime.     

Whichever side you’re on, there seems to be merit in both positions.  It really would be beneficial to have a back we can count on to get the tough yards and move the chains.  When we don’t, the offense still produces music but with some chords of dissonance because consistency is fleeting when the back that was productive one week is inexplicably rendered hapless the next.   Plus, it’s hard to ignore the turbo engines standing on the sidelines despite perhaps not having full trust of the staff or knowledge of the offense and pass protection.  

So what is the problem exactly and what should be done?  Well, the first order of business is to admit there is a problem which Tressel seems to indirectly do with this quote:

"I think (the running game) is going to be fine." 

I’m no grammar whiz but I think I have my tense down and that quote seems to suggest he’s not completely thrilled with things as they stand now.   This would jive with the cacophony of recent questions bubbling to the surface about the running game from various outlets.  It would be easy and misguided to take the stance that all is fine just because we’re winning and scoring points.  Yet, that doesn’t take into account the loss of potential.  Thus, taking the stance that things should be better, what are the possible issues?  I whittle it down to three main areas. 

Offensive Line

The big uglies have been a whipping boy for the entire Tressel tenure.  This year’s group is no different and although talented, there have been a few too many times where the line of scrimmage has moved backwards.   The running backs pick up on this and sometimes don’t trust the gap the play is supposed to go through.   Still, it’s not has if they are getting beat at the point of attack over and over.  A breakdown here and there is common amongst any team, top rated or not.   Many times the breakdown is simply a numbers game where there are simply more defenders than blockers which brings me to my next point. 

Playcalling Lacks Ingenuity

To be more specific, the running game may be a little too predictable.  When Ohio State lines up in a two back set (RB & FB), you can almost be assured the trusty ‘Dave’ play is coming.   We, as fans, know this so you can be assured the opposing staff knows it as well.  It’s an easy formation for the defense to get going ‘downhill’, bring an extra defender (or two) in the box and attack the line of scrimmage.   The net result is either small gain or a large one.  There’s usually not much middle ground.    However, the Dave play is a Buckeye staple and we need to run it a lot.  It setups up other areas of the offensive attack like the 'Fake Dave' play which has been so successful especially on third downs and when we are bleeding clock. 

Overall, I don’t see the playcalling as much of an issue.   Even when the play may not work, often times it still needs to be run to setup later calls.  Checking out of the play will temporarily prevent a loss but it might also prevent a key first down pick up when we need it most.   

Talent Deficiency

Brandon Saine and Boom Herron will never been confused with Beanie Wells or even Antonio Pittman.   The latter two players could it get it done on their own with consistency.  Saine and Herron haven’t shown that ability which is the most frustrating aspect to me.   And perhaps the frustration is unwarranted because maybe what we are getting from these two is all they can provide.   Both are one-cut backs with average acceleration, feet, vision and power.   Saine, in particular, has almost no wiggle and must come to a near stop in order to change direction.  He has tremendous straight line speed but below average ability to make a defender miss.  An odd collection of traits to say the least. 

Having said of all this, it would be foolish of me to totally ignore the contribution of Terrelle Pryor.  The fact of the matter is we have a quarterback who is supremely gifted at running the ball.   His prodigious talents help offset the pedestrian numbers of Saine and Herron.   He is also almost solely accountable for making the fake Dave play successful which, as we should all know by now, is a called running play intended to pick up yardage.  Who really cares it’s a quarterback doing the yardage collection?  

The main issue is one I touched upon before: things could be much better.   Combine the offensive efficiency we see now with Pryor’s legs and arms and match them with running backs who are doing consistent work on their own and you suddenly have an offense that is almost impossible to stop.   Teams then cannot spy Terrelle because they can’t afford to give up a defender.  Teams who don’t spy, then expose themselves to TP on the zone read and fake Dave.   

Keeping things status quo will probably get the job done against most of our opponents.  If you’re comfortable with that, then your chips lay a little different than mine.  I’d prefer to see Boom get the starts, use Saine a bit more as a receiver and mix in the Hall and Berry more when games are still in doubt.  It’s hard to ignore Hall's success in finding holes on punt return and Berry’s 11.8 yard per carry.    What changes would you make, if any? 


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BucksfanXC's picture

We haven't give Saine and Herron a chance! You say yourself they don't get as many carries as Pyror, the carries they do get are telegraphed against the #1 defense, whereas Hall and Berry (who are good, I'm not arguing they aren't) get carries in garabage time and against worse D. Make Boom or Zoom your RB for the whole quarter and they are good backs. Other teams would kill to have the "RB problem" that we have.

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

builderofcoalitions's picture

I agree with this sentiment. I also think they'll come through when we need them. Right now, TP seems to be the focus of this offense. The backs will get theirs.

Because we couldn't go for three.

poguemahone's picture

I mostly second the above sentiments. It's not like Saine and Herron have become bums over the course of the past nine months. They're still solid backs who can get the job done if they're given adequate blocking. Yes, Hall and Berry have looked promising late in blowouts, and I too get frustrated with Saine and Herron's inability to break tackles, but we've seen them produce before, and against better defenses than the ones they're facing now. Iin the end, I tend to think this staff knows what it's doing, far better than any of us do.

JoshAlum's picture

When we had to last year, we averages 200+ yards a game on the ground. When pryor was in a funk, the running game got it down.

I have very little problem thinking of the short passing game as our running game. It's safe, it's consistent. Eventually defensive coordinators will adjust to that, then the traditional running gets easier. I guess i'm optimistic, but when we're consistently facing 8 men in the box, with at least one spy, the RB handoffs aren't going to average much. It's pure numbers. What it does mean, until people catch on that Pryor isn't going to lose the game throwing picks.. we're going to score a lot, and fast.

Maybe it's a sign of respect for the team, thinking the only way to beat us is to force another 4 interception game from Pryor.

Keith's picture

I'm not so sure.  I think teams would kill to have Terrelle Pryor, not necessarily our top two RB.  That's not to say I don't like Boom/Zoom either.  I do, I just think they are limited by comparion of what we're used to having.

Additionally,  I think the fact that TP has more carries than our RB is an indictment on those RBs, right?  If we had a workhorse like DiNardo wants, we'd be feeding him carries all day. 

As I tried to say in my post, I'm not for a wholesale change to the young guys but I am for a few tweaks in the rotation.  Things could be even better than they are.

741's picture

Nailed it.

P.S. Think about how good this OSU team would be with a Beanie, or a Mark Ingram, right now... It would be AMAZING. All four of our RB's are quite good, but none of them are at the level of Beanie, or Ingram - or Pryor.

It's within the realm of possibility for Hall and/or Berry develop further and become great RB's (in the mold of a Reggie Bush), but honestly, neither has the mass of a prototypical 25-30 carries per game punishing RB.

poguemahone's picture

Eh, those RBs are two first round draft picks. Not exactly a fair comparison. 

741's picture

Not sure if you are referring to what I wrote, but if so, I guess I will say that is kind of the point... I'm saying our four guys are all quality guys, but none is an "elite" talent. We seem to get one elite RB about every 5 or 6 years here - most recently, Eddie, Clarett, Beanie.

Pryor has has the traits of an elite ball runner, but just so happens to also be our QB. I am comfortable with him having the ball in his hands 60%+ of the time, and I believe Coach Tressel is too.

The Beanie/Ingram comment is simply there as a "how cool would that be" observation. Beanie did not have a line to run behind that is as good as the one our current RB's have in front of them. If we had a "Beanie" today I think the ratio of called runs to the RB position would be significantly higher, and we might have a guy rushing for 1,500+ yards.

That said, I am really, really happy with the offensive unit we have right now - and the way Coach Tressel is running it.

BucksfanXC's picture

I don't necessarially disagree with this, but I don't think it gives Saine enough credit, let him get rolling, let him get in a groove with more reps, which I think Tressel will do now that we're playing games that "count" against the Big Ten. (Which he seemed to indicate in the presser)

I think Saine should be used more for passes, but we can make him the #1 RB and still do that. Hall and Berry will have their day in the spotlight, they are young. I know to trust in Tress and he will get them in there if they deserve it.

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

PF_Flyers22's picture

I agree with your last paragraph Keith.

The way I see it (just my opinion, so take it for what it's worth):

Boom: Shows the most consistency as an every-down back. He knows how to hit the holes and he just runs so freaking hard. As you said, he's not the most naturally gifted of backs, but he gets the job done.

Saine: There's no doubt he has the potential for a big play, but if things don't shake out perfectly, he seems to struggle. He doesn't consistently pick up yardage. It all seems very "go big or go home to me". That being said, he's a great threat out of the backfield. Why not use him in a more dedicated 3rd down back role?

Hall: He's a shifty dude alright and after 2 years of Ray Small toying with my emotions, I am loving what Hall is doing as a return-man. I don't think he's ready to be our number one back yet. I'm excited for next year's potential though.

Berry: He definitely has raw talent and that's always a good thing. However, he definitely seems to have trouble finding the whole and I think that just comes with more experience. Seeing who will emerge as the next great OSU running threat between Hall and Berry is going to be fun to watch.

Buck Futter's picture

Brandon Saine's nickname shouldn't be Zoom it should be Zig-Zag

btalbert25's picture

Last year these 2 backs were very important down the stretch.  I think they are more than adequate RB's.  With Pryor improving so much, I would like to see the Pistol that they threatened so much last year.  I don't care so much about the Wildcat, as 99.9 percent of the time we all know the RB is going to take off.  But with having a combination of the 4 great backs in there at all times it really opens the offense up even more.  Saine would get a lot more opportunities to catch the ball out of the backfield, and the defense would have to adjust to it which should open up some running room for someone other than TP. 

I just love the idea of getting the ball in Saines hand with some room to run.  He is really dangerous out of the backfield.  I have no problem seeing Hall and Berry on the field more, if they are ready.  If they aren't able to block correctly and things like that, then they need to be eased in a big more. 

RBuck's picture

I seem to remember Saine getting most of the carries last year in the last 3 Big Ten games. He was actually hitting the holes fast, straight ahead and plowing defenders backwards. Seems like he lost that this year. Time to move him to the slot just like a million other people have said.

Long live the southend.

Bucksfan's picture

This can be absolutely 100% sure...and that is if you're a youngster RB and you show THE ability against a fresh defense, then you will move up.  It's like that on every team.  Jim Tressel ultimately went with freshman Clarett over the older Mo Hall because Clarett went out there and won that job outright by rushing against 1st quarter defenses early in the season and shredded them.  If Hall and Berry start getting some carries early in the game and start showing that they are truly better against fresh d-lines and linebackers, they're going to get rewarded.  I'm with XC on this one, most of their stats are coming after the defenses are exhausted late in the game.  Put in fresh legs and anyone can look amazing.

No one's job is ever safe, but unless someone becomes the next chosen one, we're going to see this RB stable all year.  I guess it's not an awful problem, it's just rare and we don't know how to interpret the stats very well.

Matt's picture

I don't buy the whole "Berry and Hall aren't that great because they aren't going against fresh legs."  What that argument overlooks is the fact that Berry, and to a lesser extent Hall, are rushing behind the 2nd and 3rd string O-line -- most of whom are career back ups for a reason.  Berry is also rushing with Bauserman and Guiton as the QB, so the TP dimension -- where the defenders constantly have to be wary of where TP is on the field at all times -- is no longer there.

It's just specious to say that Berry isn't legit because he hasn't gotten any carries until the fourth quarter.  He may not average 11.8 ypc playing against first-team defenses in the first-quarter, but running behind the first-team O-line and with TP there with him, I think he can do better than Saine, and at least give Herron a run for his money.

My read is that the coaches don't trust Berry and Hall in pass protection/blitz pickup, and know that one wrong hit on TP sinks the national title hopes.  They'd rather risk winning the game ugly with Herron protecting TP, then risk getting the young guns out there and getting TP hurt.

btalbert25's picture

That's my biggest thought on it too, and too me, it's much more important to have RB's in there who can block and pick up a blitz at this point in time.  Plus, I remember thinking last year, man Hall looks really good.  Then he got some more carries and I thought give the ball back to Saine.  I think in the coming weeks we'll see them get more carries.  I really don't believe though, that at this point in time, with all things considered, they would be better in there right now.

NYC Buckeye's picture

Did 2 games against less than mediocre competition seem to make everyone forget about our redzone scoring issues????   Granted, it might not be much to worry about since we only face two credible defenses for the rest of the season, but I  assume your comments and analysis on our running game were in reference to that.... 

I think your assesment of our running backs was spot on though...especially Saine, who I had very high expectations for 4 years ago...I would also like to see Boom take over most of the running and use Saine as a WR/RB, since he is a great receiver out of the backfield...

NYC Buckeye's picture

And I might have just not been paying attention other times, but how come we only run that deep pass play to Saine out of the backfield in bowl games...  (LSU & Oregon).... I feel like we should utilize this play more...

slippy's picture

He scored a TD on this play against Miami.  We just weren't as far away from the endzone.

PF_Flyers22's picture

I definitely agree. Run a 4 wide-out set, then send Saine on a delayed streak down the middle of the field. I mean, if it works in NCAA '11 it will work in real like......right???

builderofcoalitions's picture

I seem to remember Texas having no runningback emerge as their #1 a few years back as their QB did all the work on his own. It worked out rather well for Vince Young, don't you think?

Because we couldn't go for three.

Keith's picture

Jamaal Charles ran for almost 900 yards at roughly 7.5 yards a carry.  I'd be thrilled if Saine or Boom reach those levels.

Certainly the end result is the goal and they accomplished it with the best player in the country that year.

NW Buckeye's picture

Much ado about nothing.  The team proved last year that they could run the ball in the absense of a liberal passing game in the last three regular season games.  They have not had to do so yet this year.  It would be great to have a Beanie Wells, but why does it have to be one guy?  In Beanie's case - when he went down the whole team went into a funk, we benched a Senior QB in hopes that a Freshman could jump start the offense.  I don't see that happening this year if any of the running backs go down.  Maybe if Terrell goes down there would be some turmoil, but it would probably be just more of what we saw at the end of the season last year only with a different Q.  Not saying they would still be favored to win out, but they would still be a decent team. 

DiNardo is an idiot who believes that Iowa is still the cream of the crop and should be the Big 10's rep in a national championship.  Even if they went through the rest of the season undefeated they would not get into the CG because of the stumble in Tucson.  There was no way they should have lost to that team.  But that is what can happen when you put all your eggs in one running back's basket and your Q has a bad game. 

And, what credentials does Dinardo bring to the table?  His only claim to coaching nirvana was when he was the O coordinator at Colorado, 1990 (voted National Champions).  There after he went to LSU to revive their program, had a #12 finish during his reign, but went down hill and got fired.  He had a stint at Indiana and was fired there as well.  You know what they say, if you can't coach, become an analyst.  That is what he did, and he is not very good at that either. 

BuckeyeSki's picture


Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

blazers34's picture

Kind of surprised Jacoby Boren didnt commit on the spot

andyr78's picture

I do not think Hall or Berry have earned the right to start yet.  As I have said I only want to see them get the carries with the 1st team.  There is a clear difference in their running styles.

dmurder's picture

I guess it doesn't matter what I think, there is no way that saine or herron are going to be setting. My personal decsion would to be keep saine in at all times, and throw the ball to him out of the backfield 5 times a game.

Run a split back set, with saine and herron. When they get tired bring in hall, and berry.

"We have always had the best damn band in the land, now we have the best damn team in the land"- Jim Tressel 1-03-03

buckeye33's picture

It looks like everybody is pretty much in agreement.....hitting holes harder..passes out of the backfield..more pistol & option plays. It just might be that our best running backs are red shirt freshman R. Smith & C. Hyde...certainly a different style than what we currently show.  Would also like to see Hall & Berry early as  change of pace type runners.

Keith's picture

This has been a great discussion.  A lot of good points and counterpoints.  My final thought is I'm a little surprised at those who think things are fine.  Saine and Boom are both averaging less than 50 yards/game and are in the 4.something/carry and this has come against horrific run defenses.   As Kevin Meaney would say, "that's just not right!".    

B_Williams's picture

I agree that the running game is a concern and have even written articles along that line of thinking in The Lantern.  I think it was mentioned on here before that Saine's love affair with the big plays causes him to dance in the backfield more and end up with little or nothing.  Boom's YPC have not been that bad, he just isn't getting the carries.  I still trust him to pick up meaningful yards. He probably wont hit a big one very often but I feel he is capable of grinding it out. 

Also, I completely agree with using Saine more in the passing game, even splitting him wide with another RB in the backfield. By not doing so we are limiting Saine's best attribute.  I think he may have the best hands on the team (no offense to Dane).