"We had guys looking like they fell out of airplanes, they were so wide open."
Nearly two days have passed since Maryland head coach Mike Locksley made that comment, and it's still unclear where, exactly, he came up with such a strange analogy. But such is life when facing Ohio State's current crop of wide receivers.
Anyone who reads 11W is aware of the talent which Ryan Day and his staff have brought to campus in recent years at the position, and while we here at Film Study don't spend a lot of time talking about recruiting, it's hard to ignore that fact when it comes to the current Buckeye passing game. While much of the conversation surrounding this season's OSU offense focused on the talent at the quarterback position, anyone lining up under center was going to be put in a position to succeed due to who would be catching passes.
Now, at the midway point of the 2021 regular season, it's evident that something special is taking place in Brian Hartline's meeting room. Never before has Ohio State seen two wide receivers eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in the same season, yet three players are currently on pace to do so if the team were to play 14 games this fall.
In their team's 66-17 dismantling of the Terrapins on Saturday, the unique talents of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were all on display. The trio hauled in 17 of 22 targets for 304 yards and four touchdowns, each attacking the Maryland defense in different ways.
One of the biggest differences between the offense with Stroud under center compared to Justin Fields the year prior is the former's ability to hit intermediate throws (10-19 yards downfield). 38.9% of Stroud's passes have come been at this distance, while Fields threw just 25% of his passes there in 2020.
A major reason why Stroud throws so many passes in this area is due to his receivers' elite ability to create separation. On an early 3rd & 13 against the Terps, we saw Smith-Njigba convert a 10-yard curl route for a first down, evading a tackler and keeping the drive alive.
But what the sophomore did to make the play was easy to miss at first glance. With the defense sitting in a soft, Cover 2 zone, Smith-Njigba showed excellent spatial awareness. Instead of just sitting still after turning around, he drifted toward the sideline to keep space between himself and the closest defender, not only allowing room for his QB to make an easy throw but so he could turn and make a move afterward to get the first down.
Smith-Njigba, in particular, is a major reason why Stroud isn't afraid to look toward the middle of the field when dropping back to pass. Even as the Terps employed soft coverage meant to keep the Buckeyes from beating them deep, Stroud and the explosive slot receiver found open windows and moved the ball downfield.
Ryan Day called the simple Four Verticals concept on multiple occasions Saturday, with Smith-Njigba tasked with getting open along the hashes.
But he didn't simply run a straight line downfield. Rather, he took an outside release to avoid contact with the underneath zone defender before bending his route back inside and slowing down just enough for Stroud to fire a pass into the space between three zones.
Later in the game, we'd see him haul in his longest catch of the day on a variation of the same concept. Lined up as the point man in a bunch formation, Smith-Njigba took an inside release meant to create space for the tight end, Jeremy Ruckert, to follow, dispersing three vertical routes from one spot.
But after initially breaking toward the middle, the slot receiver recognized that a linebacker was attempting to wall him off from running any kind of crossing route. Instead of letting that defender bump him off his path, JSN deviated and bent it slightly back outside to turn the competition into a foot race between him and the linebacker. Stroud simply had to read the eyes of the safety tasked with defending two vertical routes at once before making his throw.
While Smith-Njigba finished with his second career game with 100 yards or more, he'd fail to find the end zone. But that was thanks in large part to the efforts of his teammates and great play-calling from his head coach.
The Buckeyes often feature Jet Sweeps in their weekly game plans, looking to get explosive players like Wilson the ball in space. Obviously, Maryland knew to look for such concepts, but instead of handing the ball off when Wilson streaked across the backfield this time, Stroud dropped back and found Olave for one of the easiest touchdowns of his career.
The Terrapins appeared to be playing a version of Quarters (Cover 4) coverage, meaning the cornerback across from Olave was tasked with keeping outside leverage on the receiver, as he expected the safety to take away any in-breaking routes (like, say, a deep post). But with all the action taking place in the backfield, that safety (#3) didn't get his eyes back to Olave in time, allowing the receiver to run right past him en route to the end zone.
“I’m not really surprised,” Olave said of the play after the game. “We got one of the best play-callers in the country in coach Day, so we dial it up in practice. We run it exactly in the game how it is in practice, so we just try to connect on that and try to build on that.”
Given the other-worldly athleticism Wilson possesses, one can understand why that safety was so focused on him instead of doing his job. The Buckeyes' current leader in receptions and yards holds those titles thanks, in large part, to his ability to get a clean release off the line of scrimmage.
The Buckeyes' first score of the game came on a 4th & goal from the 2-yard line, as a Maryland defender never laid a hand on Wilson. The junior took a few quick stutter steps before landing a hard punch step inside to get the corner to bite on what appeared to be a slant route.
But the wideout then planted off that big step and broke outside toward the back corner with plenty of room to haul in a soft lob from Stroud (and nearly taking out a familiar face in the process).
Similarly, on his second TD of the afternoon, Wilson released inside just enough to get the defender to open his hips up just enough before bursting back outside and creating separation.
Few players have the athletic ability to accelerate past an opponent with such ease, and even fewer have the technique to match. While many programs have recruited receivers at a high level in the past, few have shown an ability to maximize talent once it arrives on campus.
All too often, offenses will simply run a player like Wilson on a dozen vertical routes and a dozen screens each week, hoping he'll simply outrun the competition. But the little things Hartline has impressed upon the group are what make it so hard to stop.
The Buckeye offense is currently the nation's best, not only racking up yards at a record-setting pace but finding the end zone more than any team outside of Coastal Carolina. While many have written off the Buckeyes' recent run of dominance due to a perceived lower level of competition, it's not as if murderer's row awaits them over the next month-and-a-half.
Of all the Buckeyes' remaining opponents, only Purdue (14th) cracks the national top 20 in total defense, with everyone else on schedule having shown some vulnerability in the passing game, specifically. A potential postseason matchup with Iowa could change that narrative, but a lot has to happen before such a collision might take place.
In the meantime, the Buckeyes can relax over the bye week knowing that their ability to move the football is second-to-none, with everyone in the wide receiver content with his contributions.
“It’s fun giving everybody the ball. Everybody’s happy,” Stroud said following the game. “Nobody’s looking at you trying to mean-mug you. No one does that on our team, but it wouldn’t be a good feeling. I definitely am pleased and happy that all of my receivers ate today.