Film Study: Will Ohio State's Offense Continue to Underwhelm? Or Did the Win in Wisconsin Provide Reason for Optimism?

By Kyle Jones on November 2, 2023 at 11:35 am
Kyle McCord's inconsistency has kept the Buckeyes from reaching their ceiling thus far in 2023.

Even Vegas is confused.

Film Study

If you've been waiting for the 2023 iteration of Ohio State Football to suddenly transform into an offensive juggernaut, you're not alone. Despite the fact that we are now officially two-thirds of the way through the regular season, nearly everyone - fans, analysts, opponents, and even the so-called sharps in the desert - continues to believe that the Buckeyes have yet to reach their full potential.

With a former 5-star prospect under center, a slew of similarly talented players at the skill positions, and a head coach widely considered to be of the game's best play callers, it's easy to understand why many keep waiting for the OSU offense to find another gear in the season's final month. Yet through eight games, no team in FBS has appeared in more games that failed to reach the Over/Under point total than Ohio State has this season, eclipsing that total just once while missing it by an average of 12.6 points.

Of course, Over/Unders take all phases of the game into account, and the emergence of the Buckeye defense in year two under Jim Knowles obviously plays a major role. Ryan Day's team is averaging 35.2 points scored and allowing just 10.0 so far this season, compared to 44.2 and 21.0 points, respectively, in 2022.

Ohio State statistical profile through 8 games
Credit: @SportSourceA

Such a difference in outcomes has simply been jarring to those who follow the team closely, as it is a marked difference from the recent past. While Ohio State built a reputation under Woody Hayes Jim Tressel in two different eras as a tough, defense-first outfit, the program largely shed that identity upon Urban Meyer's arrival in 2012.

       Ohio State National Ranking       (*2023 through 8 games)
Year Offensive YPG Defensive YPG
2012 46th 34th
2013 7th 47th
2014 9th 19th
2015 41st 9th
2016 31st 6th
2017 7th 9th
2018 2nd 71st
2019 4th 1st
2020 7th 59th
2021 1st 59th
2022 9th 14th
2023* 40th 4th

Though the 2015 and '16 teams more closely resembled this year's squad on paper, the reality is Buckeye football has largely been synonymous with lighting up scoreboards for the past decade. But barring 600-yard performances against Rutgers, Michigan State, and Minnesota, the program will likely finish outside the top 10 in total offense for the first time since Day set foot on campus in 2017.

Surely, the whiplash effect created by this sudden change in identity has done a number on many a Buckeye fan. But while they may have no gripes with the defense's improvement this fall, they have probably asked the following question in some form or another: "Is the offense still good enough to win the CFP? And if not, is there still time for it to get better?"

Additionally, there is a good chance you clicked on this very article in hopes of finding the answer to the above. For that, I apologize, as we here at Film Study spend our time looking at the All-22, which is not the same as looking into a crystal ball. 

While we probably wouldn't bet on the OSU offense in its current form, we are far more bullish on its potential, despite the time of year. 

Most teams with average offenses have average talent at the quarterback position. That's certainly an oversimplification, but with the sheer volume of teams and the constant turnover that is unique to this sport, there are far more starting quarterback jobs in FBS than there are 5-star recruits to fill them.

Despite the offense's overall production numbers, Ohio State does not have an average quarterback. While Kyle McCord may not yet (or ever) replicate the production of Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields, or C.J. Stroud, he has certainly shown the ability to make the big time throws required of a championship QB (just ask Notre Dame).

However, his inconsistency within games is both mind-boggling and frustrating. For whatever reason, McCord regularly gets off to a slow start, only to improve in the second half.

Last weekend against Wisconsin that trend continued, as the junior completed just 4 of his 11 attempts in the opening quarter. Many of these incompletions were the result of poor mechanics, with extra hops and hitches in his drop affecting not only the delivery of the football but also McCord's timing when trying to identify open receivers.

His confidence was clearly affected by a few early missed throws, which led to him overthinking and missing multiple targets. While he'd go on to complete 13 of 15 attempts from the second quarter onward, not all of them were pretty. 

Often, he'd stare at an open receiver while in rhythm, only to hold onto the ball before forcing it to a covered receiver. Even without Emeka Egbuka, the OSU receiving corps proved capable of hauling in a number of contested catches that made the quarterback's stat line look better than it deserved, at least before halftime. 

McCord is late on shallow cross

Ultimately, his half would end with a late throw over the middle to Marvin Harrison Jr, which was picked off by a Badger safety who had plenty of time to read the play. Harrison had been open earlier in route, but McCord hesitated just long enough to allow the defender to make a play on the ball.

"He had some really good snaps," Day said of his still-maturing signal caller. "The thing that's hard about a quarterback is that one play can ruin your whole day, and there were some critical plays that hurt us. And he knows that."

          Kyle McCord 2023 Passing Stats By Quarter            (through 8 games)
  Completion % Yards TD INT Rating
1st quarter 58.0% 554 3 1 136.86
2nd quarter 61.4% 672 6 2 164.64
3rd quarter 75.5% 524 2 0 178.81
4th quarter 65.1% 413 3 0 168.82

But as he's done throughout the season, McCord looked like a different player in the second half. The Buckeye quarterback completed all seven of his second-half attempts, with his former high school teammate hauling in four of them.

Clearly, McCord feels most comfortable throwing to Harrison when the Heisman candidate is the primary read on a given play, as the QB's footwork looks much more crisp in such scenarios. In most other programs, that reliance on throwing to the primary target so often would be a major hindrance, but when #18 is the first read, it's a very different story.

McCord on time with deep comeback

As has been the case on multiple occasions this season, such on-time throws to the primary read seemed to settle down McCord during last weekend's trip to Madison. His eyes and feet were connected after halftime, allowing him to patiently work through progressions in a timely manner, like when Harrison was the third read off play-action as he ran a backside dig. 

As McCord had to pause just a beat for Harrison to get behind the zone-dropping linebacker to his side, the QB didn't panic and abandon his mechanics. Rather, he took one small hitch while keeping the ball high, allowing him to throw a dart just behind the defender which Harrison caught in-stride.

With Egbuka still nursing his ankle and tight end Cade Stover clearly hampered by a knee injury, McCord had few other trusted places to go besides Harrison. Luckily, the return of a healthy Tre'Veyon Henderson helped him shake off early struggles as well.

As one of the most explosive backs in the nation, Henderson was also featured as a primary read on multiple occasions against the Badgers. Luke Fickell's teams have always employed a heavy amount of man coverage, which meant the Buckeyes would have an advantage whenever a linebacker tried to shadow their speedy running back.

While Day has relied upon Mesh more frequently in recent games to spring Harrison open, the concept features the running back on a wheel route as the initial read. The crossing routes over the middle picked off the trailing defender, allowing Henderson an easy catch and run down the sidelines.

"Ultimately, what you're trying to do is space it out in zone and win matchups versus man-to-man," Day said of how he incorporated Henderson into the passing game in Madison. "All our guys do well out of the backfield, but with Tre, you can see his explosiveness when he's out there."

While the junior from Virginia was a critical piece of the passing game, tallying four catches for 45 yards, his presence in the run game is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism amongst Buckeye fans. In his first game action in well over a month, Henderson racked up the second-best performance of his career with 162 yards rushing on 24 carries.

After looking lost behind a new offensive line in the first few games of the season before finally breaking a big gain off a Counter play to reach the end zone in South Bend, Henderson finally looked the way he did as a freshman when he rushed for 1,255 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2021.

Henderson's absence was clearly felt against Maryland, Purdue, and Penn State, as his replacements in the backfield struggled to match his production.

Ohio State Running Backs in 2023 (through 8 games)
  Attempts Yards Yards/Carry 1st Downs Carries of 10+ yds
Tre'veyon Henderson 68 457 6.72 17 12
all other Running backs 132 518 3.92 28 11

But as Meyer and fellow Big Ten Network analyst Gerry Dinardo broke down this week, much of the credit belongs to the improved play of the offensive line in front of him.

While Counter and Mid-Zone remain the building blocks of the running game - the 'Day One Installs' as Meyer put it - the Buckeyes have begun mixing in more complementary runs that constrain the defense from focusing too much on the base runs they expect. 

One of the most common, and successful, constraint runs is the Crack Toss. The Buckeyes like to use tight bunch formations to run the Mesh pass concept shown above, and the defense will typically play aggressively downhill in the opposite direction of the running back's alignment. 

But instead of coming across the quarterback to take a handoff, the toss play from shotgun reverses the direction of the play, combined with a wall of down-blocking receivers who are already in a tight alignment. Add in some pullers to lead the way around the edge and the offense has a huge numeric advantage outside.

When running from under center, the Buckeyes utilized the versatile skillset of Xavier Johnson to motion across and act as a lead-blocking fullback from a modified zone blocking scheme. While the line blocks an inside zone concept, Henderson uses the same footwork as he would in a Counter play - stepping in one direction before reversing course the other way - before following Johnson on what is effectively a designed cutback.

The defense begins to flow in the direction of Henderson's initial step, assuming it's a regular zone scheme, which allows the back to hit the backside edge with little traffic in his way.

With a defense that continues to smother the opposition week after week, the Buckeye offense has had a chance to play with a margin for error for the first time in years. Yet the unit that made Ryan Day a household name has yet to live up to expectations, save a 63-point, 562-yard outburst against Western Kentucky.

Unlike much of the rest of the Big Ten, which appears to have clear foundational issues with their offenses, the Buckeyes don't seem to have issues related to talent, scheme, or both. Instead, it's evident that the Buckeyes have both the ability and the game planning needed to excel.

The challenge for this team, in particular, is to perform more consistently.

The offensive line appears to be rounding into form at the same time that players like Henderson and Egbuka are recovering from injuries that have kept them out for significant stretches. McCord, meanwhile, must figure out how to shake off his early rustiness to play every quarter like it's the third.

While this team is still in good position to compete for a spot in the CFP regardless of the outcome on Thanksgiving weekend, it must be more consistent offensively if it hopes to reach its ultimate goal of winning the whole thing.

"On your bad days, you've got to be average at least," Day said of his expectations for the program. "On your average days you've got to be good and on your good days you've got to be great."

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