Sometimes the 'how' matters more than the 'what.'
On paper, last Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game victory over Wisconsin should've been enough to vault Ohio State into the College Football Playoff. By beating the previously undefeated Badgers, Urban Meyer's Buckeyes notched a victory more impressive than any recorded by Clemson, Georgia, or Alabama.
But the most common discussion echoing around the college football world in the week leading up to conference championship weekend was the need for Ohio State to not only beat their opponent in Indianapolis but to do so in dominant fashion. As we know now, their 27-21 victory clearly wasn't enough, as the Buckeyes will be spending the month of December preparing to face the USC Trojans in Dallas instead of the Tigers, Sooners, or Bulldogs.
The silver bullet defense held up to their end of the bargain by stuffing the vaunted Badger running game, holding one of the conference's best offenses to a season-low 298 yards and 4.08 yards-per-play. Throughout the first quarter, it seemed as though the OSU offense had followed suit against the Badgers' top-ranked defense.
Though they've rarely relied on the deep ball in 2017, opting to lean instead on underneath crossing patterns to move the ball aerially, the Buckeyes opened the scoring as J.T. Barrett hit Terry McLaurin for an 84-yard touchdown. Having seen quarters coverage from the Badgers on every one of their first six offensive snaps, coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day dialed up a wrinkle on Saints, one of their favorite concepts, by adding a bubble screen decoy from an ineligible receiver to distract the strong safety.
As the Badgers sat in their conservative 3-4 alignment with quarters coverage, OSU coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day were able to manipulate the Wisconsin defense with a multitude of formations, similar to what they showed Michigan State during their visit to Columbus earlier this month. When the defense did bring an occasional blitzer, though, Barrett had options to attack the space left open, such as a bubble screen relief that led to a long touchdown catch-and-run for Parris Campbell.
That bubble screen was added to the tight zone run that was the bedrock of Ohio State's offense this evening in Indianapolis, with running back J.K. Dobbins using his low center of gravity to find holes and run through arm tackles on his way to 174 rushing yards.
But while some have tired of seeing the option game in favor of straight handoffs to Dobbins and Mike Weber, the ability to read a defender gave the Buckeyes the edge against the constant seven-man box presented by the Wisconsin defense. With one player left unblocked, the OSU offensive line was able to execute their combination blocks at the point of attack before working to the linebackers at the second level.
But after a big first quarter, the Buckeye offense began to sputter. Barrett, specifically, made a pair of uncharacteristic mistakes that cost his team dearly.
First, he seemed to simply fail to see the linebacker sitting in zone coverage in between him and the receiver, leading to an easy pick-six near his own goal line.
After seemingly settling down, the QB known for his good decision-making made another bad one, forcing a late, off-target attempt to tight end Marcus Baugh on a roll-out flood concept as a defender bore down.
Both mistakes led directly to Wisconsin touchdowns, making the game much closer than it ever needed to be. But the Buckeyes also failed to extend their lead, as Barrett missed on deep shots similar to the first touchdown that sprung open in similar fashion. Though the Badgers left the door open for the Buckeyes to connect on a number of deep balls, they simply couldn't execute.
Not all these mistakes were on Barrett, though. Though he missed Johnnie Dixon on a deep throw in the second quarter that easily would've ended in six points, Dixon felt the need to pay it back, letting a sure touchdown slip through his hands in the third.
The entire Buckeye receiving corps had a case of the drops that night, as Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor let crucial third down catches hit the turf instead of extending drives.
As we now know, simply beating the Badgers wasn't enough for the playoff committee impressed. Instead of leading 35-7 in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes spent half of the fourth quarter simply running out the clock on a 15-play drive that leaned heavily on the tight zone read and resulted in a field goal.
But although this tactic was effective, getting the ball into Dobbins' hands on early downs before relying on Barrett's guts and savvy as a runner to pick up short yardage, it left much to be desired from a stylistic perspective. Despite salting away their biggest rivals a week prior with outside zone handoffs, the Buckeyes seemed hesitant to go back to that tactic in this contest, despite finding success with it early.
But though the play-calling is seemingly always questioned, no matter the result, more handoffs to Dobbins wouldn't have guaranteed a spot in the Colleg Football Playoff. Despite largely controlling a high-quality opponent in every phase of the game, the Buckeyes showed that they still have flaws, specifically when it comes to the passing game.
Though this season has seen the most successful aerial attack of Urban Meyer's tenure in Columbus and is a far cry from the past two years in which it seemed lost in the wilderness, Saturday night showed that it's still not where it needs to be. Though this phase of the offense appeared to have found another gear in the comeback victory over Penn State, tallying 328 yards on that cold afternoon, the Buckeyes never got within 100 yards of that total in the remainder of the season.
As the Buckeyes look forward, though, the good news is the foundation is in place for them to become an explosive unit through the air. Wilson and Day showed they can scheme receivers open against top competition, and a group of young receivers will likely progress with another year of practice and conditioning.
But for J.T. Barrett and the 2017 team, it will be tough to accept that a handful of mistakes may have been the difference between a CFP appearance and their upcoming trip to the Cotton Bowl.