Ohio State needed its offense to take a step in the right direction after its poor performance in a loss to Oklahoma two weeks ago, and the Buckeyes feel like they did just that on Saturday against Army.
The Buckeyes had their most consistent offensive performance of the season to date against the Black Knights, scoring 38 points, passing for 316 yards and rushing for 270 yards with an average of 8.5 yards per play on just 23 minutes and three seconds of possession.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer believes the Buckeyes offense was "better in all phases" on Saturday than it was against the Sooners.
"We were very balanced, very efficient and that’s what we’re looking for," Meyer said Tuesday.
At the same time, though, Meyer believes "continued growth on offense" is critical to the Buckeyes’ success.
"We’re still a work in progress and still working very hard as a staff and players to become the kind of offense we want to be," Meyer said.
Ohio State had major issues with its passing offense against Oklahoma, when J.T. Barrett completed just 10 of his first 21 throws for 84 yards with zero touchdowns and an interception. Barrett and the Buckeyes were much more efficient against Army, as he completed 25 of 33 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Buckeyes wide receiver K.J. Hill said he felt Barrett and the receivers found much better rhythm and timing in Saturday’s game than they did the week before. Barrett, Hill and fellow wide receiver Terry McLaurin all said Tuesday that they thought the Buckeyes played with faster tempo against Army, which had been a point of emphasis throughout the offseason but became an even bigger point of emphasis after the Oklahoma loss.
"We’ve definitely played faster, better execution on things … I think all around, everybody’s just picking up their game and executing better," Barrett said.
As already detailed this week by our Kyle Jones and by our James Grega, Ohio State placed a clear emphasis on bubble screens and run-pass option plays against Army, which seemed to suit Barrett’s strengths well and make the entire offense run more effectively.
Barrett, who acknowledged after the Oklahoma game that he had some trouble adjusting to Ohio State’s first two opponents dropping extra men into zone coverage, said he believes the RPO-heavy offense puts the Buckeyes "in the best position to attack the defense."
"I just think it keeps the defense honest," Barrett said. "With run-pass options, you really can’t just be heavy loaded whether it be run or pass. You have to be prepared for both."
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said the coaching staff didn’t make any major changes to the gameplan between the Oklahoma and Army games; they didn’t add any concepts that they weren’t already practicing, nor did they remove any concepts from the game plan entirely. Wilson did feel, however, that the game plan had a more defined direction – something he said he needed to fix with his play calling last week.
"It was just emphasis on things that were there, trying to get a direction on where to get started and get moving," Wilson said of his offensive game plan against Army. "Coming out of preseason, the first couple games, I allowed it with all the ideas to maybe just get watered down and all over the place.
"I think we just looked at what we thought would be best to attack the structure of Army’s defense. And each week it’s a different structure."
Now, as they prepare to play their final non-conference game of the regular season against UNLV before getting into the meat of their Big Ten schedule, the Buckeyes believe they must continue to build on the progress they made last week.
"We’re three games in, and I feel like we took a good step forward last week, so we’re just going to try to build on it," McLaurin said.
“I think all around, everybody’s just picking up their game and executing better.” – J.T. Barrett
Considering the difference in the level of competition between Army and Oklahoma, there remains plenty of skepticism from the outside looking in regarding whether Ohio State’s offense actually got better last week, or whether it just took advantage of a lesser opponent. Ohio State still hasn’t found a consistent downfield passing game, and some believe that will lead to more losses for the Buckeyes against top opponents (i.e. Penn State, Michigan) if they are unable to significantly improve in that area.
Barrett, however, believes the horizontal passing and offensive game plan that worked against Army can be made to work against any opponent.
"It’s almost like misdirection. You remember the days watching Oregon do that all the time? Same thing," said Barrett, whose quarterback coach, Ryan Day, played for and coached with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "As far as dropping back and throwing the ball downfield, the college game I think is getting away from that and I think even with us, people know we have playmakers on the outside with a lot of speed so they’re just sagging off, so now that definitely will help us going down the line," Barrett said.
Barrett says there is more to the offense than the Buckeyes have shown so far, and he expects he and his teammates to continue building on it and refining it.
"There’s a lot of plays you haven’t seen," Barrett said.
McLaurin says the Buckeyes aren't focusing on the caliber of their competition each week because he believes they are making improvements offensively that will help them be more successful against any opponent.
"We can’t necessarily focus on the opponent," McLaurin said. "We play who we play. But I feel like if we’re clicking on all cylinders, we’re executing our offense to a high level, then it shouldn’t matter who we play. So this week, we’re focusing on us. We’re focusing on building on what we did last week, our horizontal game, taking some vertical shots and complements and I feel like that’s what going to help us get better when we start getting into Big Ten play."