On Saturday night, Ohio State fell flat to Oklahoma during their home opener, losing 31-16. Not surprisingly, the offense received most of the blame after only managing one touchdown. For any who are counting, that is one touchdown over the past 8 quarters against ranked teams. That looks a lot like an Auburn or Florida offense, not an Ohio State offense that runs Urban Meyer's fast paced system. Despite all of the changes that were promised over the off-season, nothing seems to have changed. Barrett was supposed to have fixed his downfield throwing and Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day were supposed to have fixed all of the offensive hiccups that plagued this team towards the end of last year. Undoubtedly, this offensive performance was disappointing, but despite the popular narrative blame does not lie on Barrett alone.
Everyone in national sports coverage wants to criticize Barrett. Somehow, this Heisman candidate quarterback has regressed dramatically since his freshman year. It is to the point now where it is idiotic to even suggest that he should still be the starting quarterback at one of the top football programs in the country. They suggest that Urban Meyer is only making the decision to keep him there because of an emotional connection to his first quarterback recruit at his new school and someone who reminds him constantly of Tim Tebow. Instead, most sports commentators suggest that all evidence point to Barrett's decline and the obvious choice is to bench him.
The problem is that they never actually cite any evidence in his decline or explain how Barrett's regression makes any sense. Sure, Barrett can't hit the downfield throws and his accuracy on any throws further than 15 yards downfield is abysmal, especially when throwing to his right. It is also not helpful that Ohio State's offense has not looked good since October 2016 and that in recent meaningful games, Barrett has certainly struggled. But at the same time, it makes no sense that a quarterback of Barrett's caliber with his leadership qualities, who is also surrounded by some of the best coaches and players in the country, has regressed. Even if you concocted the perfect storm in Ohio State it would be hard in that program to actually regress as a player from freshman year to senior year. That does not make sense.
So what is the problem?
Simply put, the coaching is the problem. Meyer is clearly standing by his quarterback because he is the best player at that position within the program and undoubtedly J.T. Barrett is a great quarterback. As Cardale Jones put it in a tweet during Saturday night's game, Barrett has done more for that football program than any other player. Maybe that is a little bit of a stretch but Barrett's winning record and the records he holds at the school suggest that he is more than fit to be a starting quarterback at Ohio State.
But as great as Barrett is, he is not perfect. It has become apparent to even the most hard headed commentators that Barrett cannot throw the football downfield. But let's be perfectly clear. Barrett could never throw the ball downfield. He isn't and never has been a Big 12 quarterback who can throw the ball 50 times a game and throw his receivers open. He is nothing like Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold and he won't be drafted in the first 5 rounds of any professional football draft. Barrett couldn't make these throws that he is trying to make now freshman year.
Priority #1: Run the Ball
The difference is that the offense was designed and built around Barrett's strengths. In his Monday article, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, suggests that Ohio State is best when it runs the ball. Ohio State should never have a balanced offense because this doesn't suit J.T. Barrett. Barrett might be the best quarterback in the country when it comes to reading the defense and running read option plays. Barrett isn't a playmaker like Lamar Jackson, he is a point guard. He does best when he spreads the ball around to his playmakers and lets them move the ball downfield. The offense needs to be designed around what J.T. Barrett does best-letting other skill players make plays.
With J.T. Barrett as their starting quarterback, when the Buckeyes run a remotely balanced offense (meaning a difference of plus/minus 5) they struggle to score points. For example, they ran the ball 34 times against 35 passes versus Oklahoma and only scored 16 points. Against Clemson they called 10 more pass plays and got shutout. Against Penn State they passed 3 more times and scored 21 points. All losses.
Priority #2: Run the Running Backs
The only time Ohio State has managed to succeed when running a balanced offense was against Nebraska in 2016. They scored 62 points against an overrated and overmatched Nebraska defense. But it is important to point out that even though they ran it 42 times, Barrett only ran it 8 times. That is important as well. When Barrett is the focal point of Ohio State's run game, the offense struggles. In the Oklahoma game this past weekend, Barrett ran the ball more than the running backs, despite the fact that Dobbins and Weber averaged more than 6 yards per carry. In losses to Michigan State (2015) and Virginia Tech (2014) Barrett carried the ball more than the running backs.
In Ohio State's best offensive games during the J.T. Barrett era, offensive coordinators call a run heavy offense that features the running backs instead of the quarterback. For example, against Michigan and Notre Dame in the 2015 season, Ohio State ran almost twice as many run plays in both games and the majority of those runs went to the running backs. The team put up 42 and 44 points respectively. Against Oklahoma last year, where the Buckeyes dominated 45-24, Ohio State ran the ball 48 times to 20 passes and only featured 17 quarterback runs.
This is a simple fix and even though it seems like part of Coaching 101 to build an offense that suits your players best skills, nothing has changed. In fact, in his Big 10 conference call today, Meyer suggested that the offensive playcallers could be more creative and take more chances. Unfortunately, it seems like the solution lies in simplifying the offense in order to put Barrett in the best position to succeed.
Image: By John Silks - Taken from an internet messageboard with permission from the photographer., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2768932