“We will become a good passing team. We will. Next year.”
— Urban Meyer, Dec. 31, 2016
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When we left the charismatic Mr. Meyer last New Year’s Eve in the desert, his charisma had taken a breather behind some cactuses and his fifth Ohio State team had upheld one of the ancient adages of American football: Pass for 127 yards and 3.9 yards per attempt, and “Auld Lang Syne” gets even more melancholy.
Rutgers averaged 5.0 per attempt last season, and that placed it 128th in top-rung college football, out of 128. Ohio State averaged 3.9 over its last three games, such that going 2-1 in those seemed almost a feat of flaw-masking.
Immediately, given the gravitas of the coach making the promise, it spawned an overarching national question for fall and winter 2017-18. Can Ohio State pass — you know, really pass? Can it pass at the level necessary to reach the College Football Playoff and then score while there, unlike in the infamous 31-0 loss to Clemson? Can it make a secondary fret about what might sprint out behind it and cause horror and, in turn, loosen up the rest of the offense?
After one breezy night in Indiana, we had our answer: maybe.
“We will get better on the deep ball,” Meyer said around midnight, after the second-ranked Buckeyes’ 49-21 victory over the Hoosiers on Thursday to ring in the season. With No. 7 Oklahoma bound for Columbus on Sept. 9, he aimed to do so pronto.
By the first halftime of the year, always the utmost time to overreact, the stat sheet told of a same-old sameness. It all but whispered that you ought not show these numbers to any Ohio State fan about whom you care. J.T. Barrett, widely said to be in his 10th season as an Ohio State quarterback — it’s technically the fourth — had completed 10 of 21 passes for 95 yards with no touchdowns and a long completion of 18. Even after eight further months and one departed offensive coordinator, that resembled the line against Clemson (19-33-127, long of 21), and against Michigan before that (15-32-124, long of 16), and against Michigan State before that (10-22-85, long of 24).
“It’s been a minute since we hit some deep balls around here,” said Meyer, who has overseen some deep balls in his decorated coaching life with its national championships at two places and its perfect season at a third. “We should have had a couple today.” One of those shoulds screeched just after halftime, when wide receiver Parris Campbell streamed into the end zone for a loud drop. “Deep ball, you can’t get a better ball than that,” Campbell would say later, repeating for emphasis: “You can’t get a better ball than that.”
Just then, you could almost hear the Ohio State fans, who always seem to number roughly in the billions, pining away for Devin Smith, who zoomed behind defenses in 2014-15, or Michael Thomas, Smith’s sturdy and reliable teammate, or Jalin Marshall, still another considerable teammate. But Smith and Marshall had gone on to the New York Jets, which is akin to vanishing. Thomas had gone to the New Orleans Saints. The best receiver on the field was Simmie Cobbs Jr., who plays for Indiana and treated it to his 11 catches and his 149 yards and who, with his sideline catches, sometimes seemed to have four arms. Pretty soon after Campbell’s drop, Indiana led 21-20. History shows that Indiana beats Ohio State in Bloomington only twice every 113 years, so this did seem peculiar.
All these months later, Ohio State had stayed stuck in goo, even given the presence of a Mount Rushmore head coach. At moments Thursday night, it even seemed the Buckeyes had to turn to Barrett’s running out of necessity, an interlocking leftover from last season for a program that gets analyzed right down to its atoms.
Then, of course, boom.
They were short crossing patterns, the two that turned the game and upturned the theme. They were not deep balls, even if they were touchdowns covering 74 and 59 yards. But they did come as little reminders that kingdoms such as Ohio State tend to possess extra gears. Those gears blared as Campbell ran away from everyone to create the 74-yarder on Ohio State’s first play from scrimmage after Indiana took the lead, with a swell block from fellow receiver Terry McLaurin, and as Johnnie Dixon ran away from everyone to create the 59-yarder less than three minutes later.
All along, there had been a revelation with the freshman J.K. Dobbins, who might look small out on the field amid the others, but who in person looks like pure hell to tackle given the optimal thickness of his 5-foot-10 body. His first college game yielded 181 rushing yards. Yet all along, there also had been the knowledge it might not be sufficient against other giant programs rather than against merely good ones. Such 181s would shrink without a passing threat.
Pretty soon, Kevin Wilson himself reached the end zone even if, at age 55, he reached it only to talk to reporters after the game. He is the former Broyles Award winner for college football’s top assistant (while at Oklahoma in 2008), the former six-year Indiana head coach (until a sudden dismissal last December amid allegations of mistreatment of players) and the current Ohio State offensive coordinator (brought in to improve “Auld Lang Syne”).
He explained it as few do.
“We just needed some running plays to get our linemen to identify where they’re at,” he said. The Hoosiers “had changed, not dramatically, but where the linebackers and safeties were fitting, and we were working to the wrong guys a few times and basically running into some loaded looks. Got it clean at halftime and really just kind of simplified, got the run game going, got J.T. a couple of rhythms of crossing routes there, the one to Johnnie, one to Parris.”
Ohio State had scored 49, and Barrett had reached 304 yards and three touchdowns on 20-for-35 passing when that hadn’t looked plausible, and while those who voted Ohio State No. 2 might get accused of daffiness, the Buckeyes remain firmly in the annual national puzzle.
“I think it’s a good first game,” Meyer said. “I think obviously we made such an emphasis on deep balls that I’m somewhat disappointed we didn’t hit a couple … Our receivers, I thought, played their tails off. I thought they blocked on perimeter … We’ll get better on the deep ball. Everything else was outstanding.”
Can Ohio State pass — you know, really pass? The coach who has gone 62-6 at its helm still makes you think it might.
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