Ohio State football: Buckeyes learning to play off script again

Ryan Day said after the Buckeyes beat Cincinnati 42-0 last Saturday his passing game is still growing around groups full of new personnel.

That goes for the plays that are called as well as what happens when the original designed breaks down and quarterback Justin Fields has to improvise.

>>RELATED: Buckeyes shut out BearcatsNotesPhotos

“The guys on the perimeter have got to do a better job of staying with him in the scramble,” Day said Tuesday. “The play is never over with Justin.”

That’s a change from last season when the offense was built around Dwayne Haskins, who threw for a Big Ten-record 4,831 yards but ran for only 108.

Throwing accurately and on time was crucial to Haskins’ success since he was only going to run as a last resort. That also meant he was more likely to get rid of the ball faster whether it was going to an outlet receiver or out of bounds.

“The ball came out with a little bit more rhythm,” Day said. “Three steps and hitch, the ball came out (or he) checked it down, we were on with the play. Here those guys got to stay alive.”

Fields, who has one less year of college experience and two years less in the Ohio State system than Haskins did at this time a year ago, is still learning the offense and refining his passing processes.

Taking off with the ball is also more of an option for him, so there are more variables at play in his development.

The sophomore said the scramble drill was a big part of practice last week, and it showed in one particular connection between him and Chris Olave that set up an Ohio State touchdown.

“We’re still not where we need to be,” Fields said, “but I think we’re going to keep improving and just be where we want to be by the end of the season.”

Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

“Just run around, even on plays (with no defense), kind of running around, having the receivers float with me,” he said.

Austin Mack, a fifth-year senior who also played with the more mobile J.T. Barrett before Haskins took over, said there is a learning curve for everyone involved.

"Yeah, I mean with Dwayne, you really didn’t have to do that too much,” he said, stifling a laugh. “Definitely with Justin just trying to make some things happen, as soon as as you see him scrambling trying to get upfield, snap back real quick or just keep running."

He confirmed there is a certain backyard football element to it, but in general scramble rules call for the receivers who were in shallow patterns to run deep and the ones in deep patterns to come back toward the line of scrimmage, all while trying to work into the quarterback’s line of vision.

>>RELATED: What to know about Ohio State-Indiana and more

For a young quarterback, learning to execute every play just as it is designed is important, but so is knowing when to try to make a big play versus the safe one.

Off-script plays are often game-changers — as are impromptu mistakes.

“I think we're getting a feel for it,” Day said. “Certainly we don't want to throw the ball down the field late in the middle of the field. We got to be smart with that. Again, can you really control all of it? No, you can't. You got to kind of let it go. Give him certain parameters, then trust him.”

Fields ranks eighth nationally in passer efficiency and has tied Haskins and Barrett for the most total touchdowns by an Ohio State quarterback in the first two games of his career (nine).

Day said new quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich gets some credit for that.

"Mike has done a really good job of putting the game plan together in terms of making it clean, clear and concise so that Justin can play the way he is on Saturdays," said Day, who hired the Euclid, Ohio, native away from Oklahoma State. "Mike has had a great history with quarterbacks. He understands how to prepare a quarterback. To see the way he's worked with Justin here so far is remarkable."

Day also expanded on a postgame comment about the passing scheme being different from last season.

Crossing patterns were a staple of the Buckeye aerial attack last season — perhaps most notably when Haskins eviscerated Michigan's top-ranked defense in the regular season finale — but they have been rare so far in 2019.

“We have our whole offense in,” Day said. "What we focus on, what we decide to give Justin is based on a game plan deal, but it’s also based on the fact he's only played two games.

“We have buckets of plays. One of them is what you're talking about. We have all those. We have them all. When the time is right, we'll use them. That hasn't been the right game plan that we think in those first couple games.

“We'll continue to install those things as the time is right and we feel like the scheme fits. We have been seeing a lot more zone recently, so we’ll just keep rolling from there.”

About the Author