COLUMBUS — Where has Ohio State’s offense gone and how can the Buckeyes get it back?
That was the question of the day after Ohio State struggled to a 20-13 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday. And, after sub-par offensive performances in back-to-back games, it is becoming the question of the season.
Who are these guys? And what have they done to Ohio State’s offense?
Ohio State gained more than 500 yards of total offense in six of its last eight games last season and never dropped below 416 yards in those games.
Saturday, OSU had only 298 yards of offense, its lowest total since producing 293 yards at Penn State on Oct. 25, 2014.
With seven returning offensive starters, a healthy Braxton Miller and two good quarterbacks, it was a legitimate expectation that OSU’s offensive machine would continue to roll along.
After the offense gained 572 yards in the opener at Virginia Tech, the expectations probably got even higher. But since then Ohio State’s offense has struggled in five or six of the eight quarters it has played.
Urban Meyer acknowledged the offense is a big question mark after Saturday’s game.
“I know there are going to be a million questions about the offense. And there should be,” the Ohio State coach said. “There’s a little discombobulation that’s got to get worked out. We’ve got good players, good coaches and a good scheme.”
The unsettled quarterback situation, with Cardale Jones starting and J.T. Barrett looking over his shoulder, is the most often cited reason for the offense’s problems.
But it is almost certainly more complicated than that. The downward trend appears to be affecting everything about the offense, not just one position.
“It’s just really frustrating, knowing what we’re capable of and what we can do to teams and we’re just not playing up to that level,” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott said, “I think this is one of the best personnel-based teams in the nation. But right now we’re not playing like it.”
If an offense is a complex machine which needs all its parts working together and it’s not just the quarterbacks, what are some of the other possible reasons OSU’s offense has done so much less than expected lately?
Maybe, just like a good quarterback can make receivers look better, good receivers can elevate a quarterback’s game.
Ohio State lost a second-round NFL draft choice (Devin Smith), a third-round draft choice (Jeff Heuerman) and a sixth-round draft choice (Evan Spencer) from its passing game. And Noah Brown, who was impressive in preseason practice was lost for the season because of a broken leg.
So far, no one has stepped up and made themselves a go-to guy among the receivers. And the quarterbacks have not done a good job of getting the ball to the receivers.
Since the opener, the offensive line has not dominated consistently, like it did the second half of last season, despite returning four of five starters.
Could several coaching transitions also be playing a role in the confusion Meyer called discombobulation?
When Tom Herman, the offensive coordinator for Meyer’s first three seasons at Ohio State, took the head coach’s job at Houston, it started a staff shake-up. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner added offensive coordinator to his duties and former Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck came to Columbus as quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator.
The overall offensive scheme Ohio State runs is Meyer’s. But where Hermann might be missed most is as quarterbacks coach. Preparing Barrett and Jones to be the No. 1 quarterback on short notice was not something everyone could have done.
Also, the Buckeyes have a new running backs coach, Tony Alford.
Whatever the reasons, Ohio State needs to get it fixed if it is going to live up to expectations.
“Right now we’re not the No. 1 team in the country. We’re not playing like it. But we have the potential to be the best team in the country. But right now we’re not,” Elliott said.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.