Football is simple — win the line of scrimmage and you win the game.
Actually winning the line of scrimmage, however, is where the difficulties come in.
One of the better measurements to determine how well a team is winning the line of scrimmage is their success rate in short-yardage situation. For most of the season, the Buckeyes were very successful with three or fewer yards to go.
Over the last three games, however, things have grown increasingly difficult.
Against Northwestern, the Buckeyes failed on their first four short-yardage situations. In those four attempts, they managed three rushes of no gain and a pickup of two yards on a third-and three.
Even though they were facing a loaded box against the Wildcats because of the weather, Buckeye head coach Ryan Day was still disappointed that the offense failed to pick up just a single yard on those plays.
“You gotta get the first down,” Day said. “There’s no excuse for not getting the first down. There can be 50 guys in a box, you gotta go get it. You gotta get movement. And the extra guy, you gotta run him over. Or you gotta crack block him and get to the corner and convert. That’s the bottom line. So yeah, if we’re not converting, then yeah, we’re coming up short.”
Those failures last week are why the Buckeyes spent much more time this week in practice working on short-yardage situations. But like anything in practice, what looks good for the offense may mean bad news for the defense, so how does a coach view one side of the ball succeeding versus one side failing?
“When the offense goes against the defense in those type of situations, the thing you’re looking for is the the one-on-one situations in terms of who’s winning the one-on-one battles, because ultimately, that’s what it comes down to,” Day said. “Typically we’re not scheming against the offense or the defense, what we’re doing is trying to get better at the fundamentals and pad level, because ultimately, that’s what’s going to matter, especially in those type of situations. The guy who’s lower, the guy who can get movement, the team who will run over the extra defender in the box, will come down and block those types of things, are the ones who are going to be successful.”
The one-on-one situations are where many of the issues are stemming from. Running the ball needs execution from everybody because it only takes one breakdown to ruin a play. Of late, those breakdowns are occurring more and more frequently.
The focus this week in practice is fixing this recurring issue, which requires everybody to be better and to do their respective job. The frustration of the past month is being felt by everyone, but the fix doesn’t seem unattainable.
“Yeah, I think it’s that exactly. It’s a frustration like, ‘oh, well, we’re just one away,'” center Luke Wypler explained. “It’s not like we’re a bunch of things away or a bunch of things are going wrong and we’re missing a lot of stuff. It’s just that one thing, so for us, it’s good and bad. I mean, it’s a good thing that we’re only one away, but it’s also frustrating because you’re one away. So it’s just how can you get that one thing better, whether there’s mental toughness, physical toughness, whatever it might be, to be able to execute your job when your number’s called.”
There haven’t been year-long issues in short yardage for the Buckeyes. It is more of a recent development. Over the first three games of Big Ten play this year, they converted on 21 of 27 opportunities, including 9 of 10 against Wisconsin. However, over the last three games against Iowa, Penn State, and Northwestern, the Buckeyes have converted just 9 of 20 short-yardage situations.
Early in Big Ten play, there were no repeated issues. There was no constant frustration at “just one thing.” The Buckeyes were moving the line of scrimmage with relative ease. The evidence suggests that they can get back there again, but not without work. Because even though it may be just “one thing,” when it comes to short yardage, one thing is everything.
“Yeah, then that means it’s not working,” Day said on Thursday. “That’s not football. Football is all 11 guys operating as one. And everyone has to do their job. It’s like being on an assembly line. One guy doesn’t do their job, it doesn’t work that way. So that’s the ultimate recognition of not doing our job as a group. So everybody has to be accountable. Everybody has to do their job. And when that’s happening, then we’re succeeding. So everybody has to take ownership of that and make sure that they’re they’re doing their part.”
There are a number of reasons for some recent struggles outside of just one missed play. Injuries have been a constant. There’s no telling from week to week which running backs will be healthy. And at this point in the season, even the healthy players are banged up.
The weather last week at Northwestern also didn’t help matters.
But in that Lake Michigan monsoon, the Buckeyes did start to find some positives. They may have started 0 for 4 on short-yardage situations, but they converted their next four, finishing 4-of-8 on the day. That streak of success began with quarterback CJ Stroud pulling the ball and running for 16 yards on fourth and one.
The threat of the quarterback run helped the Buckeyes with their numbers, which was a pleasant reprieve. But it’s still all going to come back to those one-on-one battles and winning the line of scrimmage when they absolutely have to have the one or two yards in front of them.
“We’re gonna keep pounding on this thing,” Day said, “because we know how important it is to to be physical and tough here in November.”
Day knows those words are especially true this month. Say what you will about this week’s opponent Indiana, but the Hoosiers have been relatively stout against the run this year, including the fact that they held Michigan to their season-low rushing total of 165 yards this season.
This won’t be the stiffest test this month for Ohio State. That comes in two weeks against the Wolverines. And as everyone knows, the team that runs the ball more effectively in that game almost always comes out on top.
The Buckeyes have just two weeks to make sure that they are that team, and that path continues Saturday against the Hoosiers.