The Ohio State run game needs to show signs of improvement, and fast.
Perhaps not for the Buckeyes to win their next three games, which come against Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland teams that hold a combined record of 10-14, including 5-10 in the Big Ten. But returning to form on the ground during that stretch would inspire confidence from both observers and the team itself in Ohio State’s ability to hold its own against Michigan at the line of scrimmage in the regular season finale. The Wolverines have the No. 3 rush defense in the nation (79.8 yards per game) and emphatically outplayed the Buckeyes in the run game in last year’s rivalry loss.
Ohio State’s pre- and post-bye week rushing performances could hardly be more diametrically opposed. The Buckeyes averaged 228 rushing yards per game through the first six weeks but failed to crack the century mark in each of their past two games, totaling just 164 yards combined against Iowa and Penn State. While the Hawkeyes have the No. 11 run defense in the FBS, Penn State allowed 418 rushing yards in its loss to Michigan, and the Buckeyes mustered just 37 on 19 attempts through three quarters last Saturday.
Luckily for Ohio State, several factors indicate the scarlet and gray could get back on track on the ground against Northwestern this weekend.
“There has been an edge to them this week, which is great coming off a win like that. And what does it come down to? Again, it comes down to energy and execution.”– Ryan Day on the OSU offensive line
Personnel-wise, the Buckeyes are expected to have both of their top running backs available against the Wildcats. TreVeyon Henderson has dealt with injury issues that have either held him out or limited the sophomore in multiple games this season, but health concerns haven’t been a talking point surrounding Ohio State’s leading rusher since the bye week. Miyan Williams, who sat out of the Buckeyes’ Week 6 Michigan State win, left last week’s game after just two carries. But Ryan Day says Williams will be back in action against Northwestern.
“I mean, you look at that game and certainly there’s a lot of things that you go back on, and you point to different things. You know, losing Miyan certainly did have an effect on us,” Day said on 97.1 The Fan Thursday. “But looking forward to getting him back this week.”
Ohio State isn’t immune to an off day on the ground when Henderson and Williams are both healthy. Neither player was unavailable when the Buckeyes rushed for just 66 yards on 30 carries against Iowa two weeks ago. But again, Iowa possessed the best run defense Ohio State has seen all season.
That won’t be the case against Northwestern, which ranks 109th in the country against the run – the worst unit Ohio State has faced this year. The Wildcats are giving up an average of 186.4 yards per game on the ground, and 212.8 in the past five games leading into this weekend. Northwestern has the second-worst run defense in the Big Ten, and it’s given up more than five yards per carry in each of its past three contests.
That’s just what the doctor ordered for an Ohio State rush attack that’s struggled to find its legs in back-to-back weeks. Starting right tackle Dawand Jones admitted Wednesday that the Buckeyes were bothered by their lack of success on the ground early against Penn State. But Jones highlighted the Buckeyes’ fourth-quarter burst, which included 61 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries, as something to build on.
“You get frustrated. But once you see one break just like we did, you just get back to reality and be like, ‘It was a matchup game.’ So that’s all you can look at it like,” Jones said. “The other team’s gonna be good too. It’s gonna be a back-and-forth battle. I feel like we fought to the end. … I mean it’s always concerns, but the only thing we can do is go to inside and team run in practice and get better. Just reps and get more reps at inside and team run. But I don’t think we can do nothing else.”
Day said he likes what he’s seen from Ohio State’s offensive line in practice this week, although that isn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence. Still, Day said the intensity seems to have risen given the recent results in the run game.
“Their approach this week has been good, I think they’ve had a little bit of an edge to them. And that really hasn’t changed though, I’ve been very impressed with the way they’ve been practicing,” Day said. “But there has been an edge to them this week, which is great coming off a win like that. And what does it come down to? Again, it comes down to energy and execution. Having the energy to go out there and practice really hard, going out there and executing the plays at a high level.
“It takes all five guys and then some to execute in the run game. And then obviously the running back has to make his reads, so a lot that comes with it.”
Another factor that could lead to a bigger game for the Buckeye rush attack is the weather in Evanston, Illinois, where it’s expected to rain with wind clocking in at anywhere from 25-40 miles per hour. While that could lead to sloppier offensive play in general, it also means Ohio State might look to pound the ball on the ground with more frequency than usual. Perhaps a heavier dose of carries could enable more breakthrough gains for Henderson, Williams and company.
“We got to do a good job and adjust to the conditions. I always say that the biggest thing is we just have to handle it better than our opponent, because they have to deal with it as well. And if it’s extreme, then we have to make adjustments,” Day said. “I don’t know if it’ll be extreme. Certainly, the weather doesn’t look great, the forecast doesn’t look very promising. So we’re starting to talk about some of the ideas and thoughts in all three phases.
“But that’s why you plan like this and you have balance in game planning, because in November, the weather is unpredictable in the Big Ten.”
Day said the Buckeyes have often practiced in the elements this season, and are preparing for this game in particular by squirting water on the ball before the snap “just to get that feel for it.”
No matter the conditions, Ohio State will have to put forth a much-improved effort on the ground for growing concerns about its run game to subside for the time being.