Coming off the best passing season in school history, Ohio State promoted Ryan Day to head coach in January.
Since Day is credited with re-energizing the Buckeyes aerial attack since his arrival in 2017, the move prompted some thought a new era of pass-happiness never before seen in Columbus had dawned.
Then the games started and, to borrow a favorite phrase from ESPN College GameDay host Lee Corso, Day hit the Ohio State fandom and punditry alike with a big ol’, “Not so fast my friend!”
More than just an easy t-shirt slogan, “A new Day at Ohio State” has turned out to mean an offense using more formations and personnel groupings than his predecessor, spread run-game godfather Urban Meyer, while emphasizing the run more than the pass.
Through six games, Ohio State is running the ball over 60 percent of the time, a jump from 48 percent last season and even higher than the average from the other six seasons under Meyer (59 percent) and the 10-year Jim Tressel era (60 percent) that spanned 2001-10.
This season's figures, which count quarterback scrambles as runs but are adjusted to exclude sacks, are surely skewed at least somewhat by the fact Ohio State opened up huge first-half leads against its first five opponents, but blowouts were also common during the Tressel and especially Meyer eras, too.
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Even against a traditionally strong Michigan State front seven last week, Ohio State was able to run the ball when it wanted and finished with 323 yards on the ground.
Meanwhile against the Spartans, quarterback Justin Fields threw 25 passes and was sacked three times while the Buckeyes finished with 46 rushes (again, minus the sacks).
That is a run-pass ratio (62 percent) even higher than the season average, but Day expects the offense to continue to evolve as the season wears on and the schedule gets tougher.
“Last year we were a bit more passing, and that's kind of how it played out as it went on, but I think we're very explosive in the pass game,” he said. “Again, tribute to the way backs are running and the way we're blocking because when you can run you can really control the game.
“I think we've done that so far as the game goes on and the season goes on, we get into these games, we're going to have to throw at a high level. So that's going to be part of this, but certainly any offense will tell you they want great balance.”
That Fields, a sophomore and first-time starter who has only been in Columbus since January after transferring from Georgia, needs time to develop as a passer is not a surprise, especially since three of the top receiving threats from last season are with NFL teams this fall.
The offensive line becoming a dominant unit almost immediately despite having to break in four new starters was not certainty either, though, and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson credited physical practices.
“It's tough as when you pop the pads, you have to build that back up, you don't start back where you were, and then we live also in a day and age where you can over-hit over practice. So how (do you maintain) the balance of building the contact volume you need, keeping your players healthy, keeping them fresh, but also keeping them tough?” Wilson said.
The answer has been frequently pitting the first-team offense against the first-team defense in practice along with no shortage of live tackling drills.
“It's got to be real, but we also can't get guys hurt,” Wilson said. “It's also just a little bit of you get what you emphasize, and we've emphasized that we want to be a team that continues to play the game with a little bit of physical presence and toughness.”
The next challenge is maintaining the momentum the Buckeyes have built. They are off this week and will have another weekend without a game in November before finishing with Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State and Michigan.
“How do you how do you keep that momentum without lose that edge?” Wilson asked before comparing the season to a boxer preparing for a prize fight.
“Boxers go into training, they take some off, they go in six, eight weeks and it's not learning how to punch so much as it's learning how to take punch and get your body hardened up, and right now we're in a good place.”
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