The best way to ease a new starting quarterback and three new starting offensive linemen into the regular season is by having the kind of running game that sets a tone better than a pitch pipe.
With two new starting tackles, giving them ample opportunities to play on their toes in the running game rather than their heels in the passing game will literally and figuratively allow them to find their footing. And the best thing for a young starting quarterback is a running game that isn’t impacted by the experience of the person receiving the snaps from center.
As the full-time head coach at Ohio State since 2019, this will be Ryan Day’s third go-round with a new starting quarterback. In 2019, sophomore Justin Fields made his Ohio State debut against Florida Atlantic. The Buckeyes ran for 237 yards in that game, and then followed it up with 270 yards rushing in a 42-0 win over a Cincinnati squad that would only lose to two teams that year.
The running game helped Fields get comfortable, and helped him stay there. Alternatively, the situation wasn’t so helpful for CJ Stroud in his first couple of games as a new starter in 2021. The Buckeyes opened the season at Minnesota and ran for 201 yards in a hard-fought 45-31 win over the Gophers, but were held to just 128 yards on the ground the following week in a 35-28 home loss to Oregon.
“The running game is going to be very important,” Day said this week. “You think about the first years for Justin and for CJ, it was important to have a good running game. We learned a lesson on that in the Oregon game in my opinion on offense.”
Despite actually running the ball five more times against the Ducks than the Gophers, the effectiveness was lacking. Ohio State averaged just 4.1 yards per carry in that game, which was their lowest average in over a year.
The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in rushing by sizable margins in each of Ryan Day’s first two years as head coach. They fell to fourth in 2021, but still averaged the most yards per carry in the conference by nearly a quarter of a yard. Last year, they improved to third in the Big Ten in yards per game, but fell to second in yards per carry.
On the whole, the Buckeyes have been able to run the ball well, but they haven’t always been able to do it when they needed it most. The situational improvements this season will be key.
“You have to be able to run the football,” Day said. “When you get in the red zone, when you get in third down situations, first and second down, it sets up play-action pass. It’s something that we’ve been spending a lot of time on, and I like our progress there, but we have got to keep building on it.”
It’s not just situational, of course. Certain opponents have also caused issues. The Buckeyes rushed for just 64 yards in a loss to Michigan in 2021. That’s the lowest rushing total for Ohio State against the Wolverines since 2003 when they managed just 54 yards in a 35-21 loss. (Other than the zero yards Michigan allowed in 2020, of course.)
November will get here soon enough, but right now the Ohio State coaches are in the here and now. They are evaluating every situation, every position group, and every snap. Evaluating the running game is a bit different, however, because there isn’t a lot of tackling. Practices are physical at times, but not at all times, and the NCAA has rules on just how often physical practices can occur.
So how do coaches even know if the running game is as good as it needs to be, or even as good as they think it is?
“You can tell,” Day said. “I mean, just week in, week out, day in and day out, you just feel it. The ball is getting to the second level, [TreVeyon Henderson] is hitting the hole, the timing, the guys rocking off the ball. You can see it when you’re out there. There’s promise here.”
The Buckeyes are three days away from their second scrimmage of fall camp. More questions will be answered. The depth chart will be more settled than it is now. But it’s not just the depth chart that needs to be known. Ryan Day also wants to see the identity of this football team emerge — and he wants it to have enough physicality to carry them well beyond just the first month of the season.
“I mean, by the end of this week, you’d like to know where you’re at in a lot of areas,” he explained. “This is kind of the last week we can just focus on football because classes start next Tuesday. So by the end of this week, you gotta know. I think right now we know what we need to work on. We have a list of things: ‘Here are the things we got to get better at this week. Here are some things we feel like we’re doing well.’
“But I said to the staff, by Saturday, we need to have our identity kind of etched in stone on where we’re at. And we say all the time you have your fastballs and you have your changeups and curveballs, well we better know where the fastballs are. And then continue to get better at the changeups and curveballs.”