Explosive Plays in the Passing Game Have Been Missing…Can it be Fixed?

With only four regular season games to go for the Buckeyes, it is that time of year where the Buckeyes should be fine tuning things to prepare for that team up north, a B1G championship game, and a college football playoff run.  This is not the case though as the Buckeyes have stagnated in a few areas and need to improve drastically to realistically have a shot at any of those goals.

Earlier this week, I took a look at how the offensive coaching staff has struggled to incorporate both Mike Weber Jr. and Curtis Samuel into the game plan at the same time.  In today’s article, I am going to look at the lack of explosive plays in the passing game and how the Buckeyes may look to fix this problem in an attempt to jump start the offense heading into a huge match-up on Saturday night.

It has been a hot-topic around Buckeye Nation to discuss why the Buckeyes are not opening up the field more.  The appearance has been the Buckeyes are reverting to their mid-2000’s offense where they are content on running the ball down the defenses throat on first and second down, regardless of the situation, then as a last resort throwing the ball on third down.

With that in mind, I went through each game and pulled out every pass that was completed and resulted in a gain of 15+ yards.  Based off of this criterion, Ohio State is only ranked 73rd in the entire nation with 40 receptions.  This total puts them in a three way tie with Northwestern and Minnesota for sixth in the Big Ten.  Those are not exactly two teams anyone would expect the Buckeyes to be tied with in the explosive passing plays category.

After compiling this list, I then looked at the different stat breakdowns; such as down and distance of each throw and who was the receiver.  This was done to try to come up with any sort of patterns which the offensive staff or J.T. Barrett may fall into based on the situation of the game.  With all of that said, let’s dive in and see what it means.

Who Are the “Go-To Guys”

One of the biggest topics of debate dating back to the exit of Devin Smith is wondering who the Buckeyes can rely on as a deep threat.  Last season, they hoped Jalin Marshall or Braxton Miller would develop into that person but it never really happened.  This year through eight games, it would once again be debatable who that person is.  One could argue Curtis Samuel based off his ability to seemingly do everything or you could even argue that Noah Brown is that guy based off of his masterful performance in Norman, Oklahoma.  But no one can definitively say one way or the other.  So let’s look at how the 15+ yard plays actually stack up this season so far:

Receiver Catches Yards
Samuel 14 345
Brown 8 185
Wilson 6 162
Baugh 4 86
Hill 2 81
McLaurin 2 35
Campbell 2 31
McCall 1 36
Weber 1 15

As you can see, the three guys you would expect to be at the top of the list are there and seem to in-fact be the biggest play makers on the team.  Curtis Samuel continues to show why he is possibly the most dynamic offensive player in college football as he easily leads the team with 14 catches of 15+ yards, which is as many as Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson have combined.

While this is cool to see, there is cause for concern as the true wide receivers on the team (Brown, Hill, McLaurin, and Campbell) have combined for only 14 catches of 15+ yards.  In order to open up the field and get the Buckeyes offense moving, the wide receivers will have to be consistent threats on the outside which they aren’t.

This is where it may make sense to have Wilson play more outside than he has this season.  He has experience out there, he appears to finally be healthy, and he would give the Buckeye offense another big-play threat on the field.  A three wide receiver set of Brown, Wilson, and Samuel would force the defenses to spread out more which would open up more running lanes for Weber and Barrett.

With those three, you could then rotate in Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill to keep the receivers relatively fresh.  Those two have shown, when healthy, to be the only receivers to step up at key situations outside of the big three.

Targeted on Downs

After getting the raw data of who is making the explosive plays in the passing game, I was curious to see on what down these players were being targeted.  Were there certain players only being targeted on certain downs?  Who does Barrett feel the most comfortable throwing to?  First off, let’s take a look at first down numbers:

1st Down Catches
Wilson 3
Brown 3
Samuel 2
McLaurin 2
Hill 1
McCall 1
Campbell 1
Baugh 1
Weber 1

As the chart shows, quite a total of nine players have seen the ball on first down and are given the opportunity to make a big play.  The guys you expect to be at the top of the list are there but you can see the Buckeye staff and/or J.T. Barrett feels comfortable with everyone getting a chance on first down.  This is not the case on second down as things get a little tighter:

2nd Down Catches
Samuel 7
Brown 2
Baugh 2
Wilson 1
Campbell 1
Hill 1

When it gets to second down, you can tell the Barrett inner circle-of-trust shrinks down quite a bit and the Buckeyes prefer to get the ball in the hands on their top play maker Samuel and the distance to go does not matter.  Of his seven receptions on second down, four of them came in second and long situations (6+ yards to go) and three were in second and short situations (<5 yards to go).  This makes sense as it really shouldn’t matter what the down and distance is, get the ball to Samuel and watch plays happen.

2nd & Long (6+) 2nd & Short (<5)
Samuel 4 Samuel 3
Brown 2 Hill 1
Baugh 2
Wilson 1
Campbell 1

On third down, the Barrett inner circle-of-trust shrinks completely down to the four names you would expect to see getting the ball in third down situations.  The only players to touch the ball are their four best receiving options:

3rd Down Catches
Samuel 5
Brown 3
Wilson 2
Baugh 1

Once again, you can see that Samuel is the favorite target as he has hauled in five receptions of over 15 yards on third down with all but one of those coming in third and long situations as shown below:

3rd & Long (6+) Rec. 3rd & Short (<5) Rec.
Samuel 4 Brown 2
Wilson 2 Samuel 1
Baugh 1
Brown 1

What this chart shows is that in third and long situations, Barrett relies heavily on whichever H-back is in the game as they have six of the eight total receptions.  This makes sense because the Buckeyes should expect their two most experienced guys to be a mismatch for whatever linebacker, safety, or nickel back that is lined up across from them. On third and short, they turn to their big body on the outside and throw more to Brown who has the size to use his body to shield off the cornerbacks for those short slant routes.

These charts give us some key takeaways we can look at further.  Whether it is the tendencies of Barrett or the designed plays from the coaching staff, opposing defenses can certainly key on specific players based off of the down and distance.  When it is first down and Barrett drops back, it is free game for anyone on the field to touch the ball.  When it is second down, you can expect the main target to be Curtis Samuel regardless of distance.  On third down, the defense can focus on Samuel in third and long situations and Brown in third and short situations.  So how is this fixed?

It is impossible for me to say how to fix this situation and not make it so easy to predict where the ball is going when Barrett drops back to pass.  There are simply too many other factors going on during a game.  The biggest thing would be ANY other player stepping up and gaining the trust of the coaching staff on the outside.  Right now on second and third down, whether they have five wide receivers or three wide receivers, the only two people who really matter are Samuel and Brown…everyone else is simply window dressing to disguise routes and cause confusion.

First Quarter Issues

Another issue which came to light is the lack of explosive passing plays in the first quarter for the Buckeye offense.  In week one against Bowling Green, the Buckeyes had three passing plays over 15 yards in the first quarter.  Over the next six weeks, the Buckeyes only had two explosive plays combined in the first quarter and both of those came fairly late in the quarter against Rutgers and Indiana.

The fact the explosive passing play was almost non-existent for six weeks is not a huge issue by itself unless it meant the Buckeyes were not scoring points in that first quarter.

15+ Plays 1Q Off. Points
Week 1 3 21
Week 2 0 3
Week 3 0 7
Week 4 1 6
Week 5 1 3
Week 6 0 3
Week 7 0 0
Week 8 3 10

In the six weeks where the offense combined for two explosive plays, the Buckeyes only averaged a little over three points in the first quarter.  For comparisons sake, in those same six games they had 14 combined explosive plays in the second quarter and averaged over 16 points per game in the second quarter alone.

15+ Plays 2Q Off. Points
Week 2 2 17
Week 3 4 21
Week 4 3 24
Week 5 0 21
Week 6 2 3
Week 7 3 12

As they did on Saturday against Northwestern, the Buckeyes can’t be afraid to throw the ball early and put up points quick in the first quarter.  The big key is to sustain it throughout the entire game which they were unable to do against the Wildcats.  After their three explosive passes in the first quarter, the Buckeyes then combined for three more over the final three quarters.  On the bright side, it does show progress that the Buckeyes came out willing to throw the ball.  They will need that against Nebraska and their opportunistic defense.

Flow of the Game

To the naked eye, the Buckeyes have a simple strategy when it comes to play calling and it has been pretty effective to winning games under the Urban Meyer era.

The first quarter the offense is designed to run the ball and wear the defense down from the get go while not turning the ball over and giving the opposing team any momentum.  This is why you see the Buckeyes only scoring a little over 7 points per game in the first quarter.

The second and third quarter is typically where Ohio State decides to open up the offense a little bit and stretch the defense out.  This is done with hopes that a full quarter of Weber and Barrett pounding the ball up the middle will have slowed down the defense.

The fourth quarter then reverts back to first quarter Buckeye football where they rely on the running game and a one and a half yards and a cloud of dust mentality.  This is because the Buckeyes typically have a lead and the focus goes to worrying more about not turning the ball over and controlling the clock over scoring all of the points.

After knowing all of that, I was interested to see if the stats actually backed that up:

Explosive Plays
Opponent 1Q 2Q 3Q 4Q
Bowling Green 3 1 2 1
Tulsa 0 2 2 1
Oklahoma 0 4 0 0
Rutgers 1 3 3 0
Indiana 1 0 0 1
Wisconsin 0 2 1 2
Penn State 0 3 0 2
Northwestern 3 0 1 2
Totals 8 15 9 9

As could be expected, the quarter where explosive plays were most apparent was the second quarter as they hit on 15 big plays through the air.  While the first and fourth quarters show a decent number, the numbers are slightly skewed in the first quarter due to week one and week eight, as we have already talked about.  In the fourth quarter, the numbers received a giant boost over the past three weeks because Ohio State was either tied or trailing in the fourth quarter of those games and accounted for six of the nine plays.

What Does this all Mean?

There was a lot of data thrown your way but I think it boils down to one thing when it comes to the Ohio State offense… don’t be too cute trying to out think the other defenses.  Line your starters up against theirs, run your offense and expect good things to happen.  There are times where the Buckeyes offense may have Terry McLaurin, James Clark, and Johnnie Dixon on the field.  Those three players have combined for two catches over fifteen yards…and all of those are from McLaurin and came in low-pressure first down situations where he took a screen pass and made things happen.  I get the strategy of keeping people rested but at this point of the season, the most productive play makers need to be on the field and making plays.

First off as I mentioned in the first section, the simplest move would be to take Wilson back outside and have your three best play makers at receiver on the field at the same time.  With Wilson, Samuel, and Brown out there; the opposing defense would be forced to account for the 28 explosive plays those three have combined for this season.

Doing this would force the defense to cover sideline to sideline and open up all those holes between the tackles for Weber and Barrett to have a little more room than they currently do.  Right now, with no consistent passing game, the defense can move up and simply play the run.  This is especially the case when Samuel is lined up in the backfield.  A simple shift in coverage to double team Brown all but eliminates and down the field throw…especially when it is second or third down.

Second, the Buckeyes have to be more willing to come out and throw the ball from the beginning of the first quarter until the end of the game.  As these stats have shown, good things happen for the offense in the first quarter when they throw the ball around.  The run game is the bread and butter of this offense but defenses are beginning to focus on taking the run game away and there is has been no answer as of yet.

Finally, the offense needs to not simply save Samuel for second and third down to be a receiving threat.  Of his 14 explosive plays, only two of them were from receptions on first down.  Utilizing Samuel more in the passing game on first down will help eliminate all of the second/third and longs the offense has been facing recently as teams focus on shutting down the running game on first down.