For many years, one phrase trumped them all in summing up Ohio State football: Three yards and a cloud of dust.
Forty years after Woody Hayes coached his last game, the mantra synonymous with his name still seems to linger in the room whenever discussing the Buckeyes offense.
Even when Ohio State has a high-powered passing attack, there tends to be a feeling the return of the ground-and-pound offense is just a graduation away.
And that is justified.
While Hayes’ conservative reputation was well-earned, he himself deployed a productive passing game at two different junctures in his career (1952 and ’68-69) but moved away from it each time.
Successor Earle Bruce, a long-time Hayes assistant, came across more like Hayes than not, no doubt helping lock in the program’s reputation for another decade even though Bruce allowed his quarterbacks to throw quite a bit more than Hayes.
John Cooper had some explosive offenses in the 1990s, but Ohio State was still a run-first team for the most part under him, and then Jim Tressel came along to indoctrinate a whole new generation in the ways of conservative (and winning) football from 2001-10.
Urban Meyer was heralded as an offensive innovator, but like Tressel he counted Bruce as a mentor.
Meyer’s teams put up gaudy numbers, but at its core his offense is wants to be ground-based as long as the defense will allow it.
Toward the end of Meyer’s tenure, Ryan Day brought balance to the offense (at least when it wasn’t tilting too far the other way), and now Day is the one holding the head coach’s whistle.
That has led to an offseason full of questions about how he will put his stamp on it — inquires he acknowledged don’t only come from the outside.
“When I go to bed at night, that’s what goes through my mind: ‘What is this going to look like?’” Day said. “‘Cause to say it’s going to look like it did last year, that’s foolish. There’s so many different bodies in there. There’s a bunch of guys we’re replacing, and new personalities with new skill sets, so how do we maximize those guys?”
Whatever changes he makes now that Ohio State is his team, Day won’t be the first to tweak the attack.
Despite the reputation, the Ohio State offense has always evolved, and a coaching change was not always required for it to happen.
Ohio State football did not start with Woody Hayes — it only seems that way most of the time.
Prior to Hayes, two of the great offensive minds in the history of football roamed the sidelines in Columbus.
Francis Schmidt came to Ohio State in 1934 with the reputation of mad genius and took the Big Ten by storm with his “razzle dazzle” offense, an attack that featured lots of laterals, reverses and, yes, even some forward passes.
When his program fizzled out at the end of the decade, he was replaced by a man generally regarded as his polar opposite: Paul Brown.
Brown had made a name for himself as the coach at Massillon Washington High School, and he would later revolutionize the game at the professional level.
At Ohio State, he instilled discipline in a program that had very little under Schmidt, who was reputedly more interested in dreaming up new plays than practicing fundamentals — or any defense, really.
Brown won the school’s first consensus national championship in 1942 before leaving to help the United States’ World War II effort.
No one will ever know what heights he might have led the Buckeyes to if fate had not intervened, but they were back on top of the Big Ten standings under former player Wes Fesler late in the decade.
Using both the single-wing and the T formation, Fesler’s 1949 team was the first Ohio State squad to win the Rose Bowl.
A year later, though, he was out after his handling of a loss in the Snow Bowl against Michigan in 1950 brought heavy criticism.
That opened the door for Hayes, who was a T man through and through and committed fully to that style — even though it meant de-emphasizing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Vic Janowicz led the Big Ten in total offense and scoring as a single-wing halfback in 1950, but he touched the ball 60 fewer times the following season in Hayes’ offense.
Hayes road that T formation running game hard through the ‘50s and won four Big Ten titles and three national championships in his first 11 years, but he had to make changes after a lull in the mid-60s.
New offensive coordinator George Chaump convinced Hayes to install the I formation in 1968, giving teams more to prepare for and more field to defend than when the Buckeyes were in Hayes’ beloved “Full house” or “Button shoe” offense with three backs, and adopting a hurry-up style Hayes saw at nearby Upper Arlington High School made it even more dangerous.
That — and one of the greatest recruiting classes in history — was part of a three-year run from 1968-70 that saw the Buckeyes go 27-2 and win two Big Ten titles while twice being recognized as national champions.
After Hayes was fired in 1978, Bruce retained much of his offense, but he let his quarterbacks air it out much more than Hayes.
» HARTMAN: Bruce one of most influential Buckeyes ever
In ’79, sophomore Art Schlichter set the school’s single-season passing record, something he did against as a junior and as a senior. The last mark (2,551 yards) stayed standing as the school record until 1995 when St. Henry’s Bobby Hoying became Ohio State’s first 3,000-yard passer.
Hoying’s coach, John Cooper, replaced Bruce in 1988 and his offensive coordinator, Jim Colletto, made headlines by telling reporters the Buckeyes would at times use three-receiver sets and, gasp, even get in the shotgun.
Cooper’s offensive coordinators changed multiple times over the years, but it maintained a similar style throughout his 13 years. Mostly based out of the I formation, Cooper’s Buckeyes relied more on superior size, strength and skill to win games than out-scheming teams.
His successor, Jim Tressel, was famous for calling games conservatively, but he was fairly flexible when it came to his offensive game plan.
(Perhaps the best example of his flexibility came in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, however, when he leaned heavily on quarterback Craig Krenzel as a runner to blunt the fast, aggressive Miami Hurricanes defense. It wasn’t pretty, but the Buckeyes squeezed just enough points out of that game to claim their first consensus national championship since ’68 — and Krenzel was the offensive MVP despite throwing for only 122 yards. He was also the game’s leading rusher with 81 yards on 19 carries.)
In his 10 seasons at Ohio State, Tressel’s teams ran the ball more than they threw, but they did so from the I formation, one-back sets and the shotgun.
By the end of his tenure, they had mixed in a significant amount of zone read for quarterback Terrelle Pryor despite pooh-poohing that particular attack earlier in the decade (while Meyer was having great success with it at Florida).
When Meyer took over in 2012, he bragged about his spread offense’s ability to feature playmakers all over the field, but also stressed the running game at its core wouldn’t be much different than what he had learned while working as a graduate assistant for Bruce in the mid ‘80s even if the formations were.
Always in the shotgun and rarely with fewer than three receivers on the field, Meyer’s early teams leaned hard on strong offensive lines, bullish running back Carlos Hyde and dynamic quarterback Braxton Miller, a Wayne graduate who actually found more running success on single-wing type plays than zone read.
With J.T. Barrett replacing Miller and the receivers more explosive and reliable (sometimes), a more balanced offense shredded weak and average opponents but often bogged down against good ones.
(There was also a three-game run to the national championship under Cardale Jones that requires far more explanation than we have time for here.)
In year six of Meyer’s tenure, Day and Kevin Wilson were brought in to revitalize the attack, though the changes were fairly subtle until a golden-armed quarterback named Dwayne Haskins became the starting quarterback last season.
And that brings us to today.
So far, Day has guaranteed at least one thing.
“The answer can’t be just like last year because that’s how we’ve done it. That doesn’t work,” said Day, who also noted he has to consider how the offense affects the defense and special teams now that he is head coach. “I think we are going to have a good defense. I think we are going to be really good on special teams. So how does that fit in with a young quarterback?”
He and Wilson are on the same page there.
“To me, every year offense always evolves because it’s about what you can block and what your quarterback can handle, and that changes,” Wilson said. “You’re going to graduate guys, you’re going to have injuries, and the quarterback position can do things.
“If you have those skill players at receiver and running back, they make plays look better and make you look better.”
To that end, Ohio State has a two-time 1,000-yard rusher returning in J.K. Dobbins while the receiving corps has three veterans and a handful of promising youngsters.
Though he will be breaking in four new starters, offensive line coach Greg Studrawa has a mix of experienced older players and promising youngsters to lean on heading into preseason.
Quarterback is a wild card as Justin Fields and Gunnar Hoak are both transfers with no starting experience, but the starter shouldn’t have to do it alone no matter who it turns out to be.
Wilson is also high on a tight end group whose depth could open up more possibilities.
While Ohio State primarily was a three-receiver (called “11 personnel”) team under Meyer, the Buckeyes might use two receivers, a running back and two tight ends (12 personnel) more often this season.
In that case, the second tight end could act like a slot receiver on one play and line up in the backfield as a fullback on the next.
The latter is something Ohio State dabbled with last season, but the potential to expand that package was one fo the things Day cited in hiring quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich away from Oklahoma State, where he was the offensive coordinator last season.
“I think it’s important to learn the cutting edge of everything,” Yurcich said, citing not only Xs and Os but also recruiting and team development on and off the field. “The thing I appreciate about being here is it forces you to do that and it forces you to do it in different aspects.”