Ohio State football still trying to right course set on last trip to Rutgers

  • Marcus Hartman
12:46 p.m Friday, Sept. 29, 2017 Journal-News Sports
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 24: Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes has a pass knocked out of his hands on the goal line by Isaiah Wharton #11 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the first quarter at High Point Solutions Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)

Not many people noticed it at the time, but Ohio State’s most recent trip to Rutgers marked the first step toward being shut out by Clemson in the College Football Playoff. 

Oh sure you probably never thought a 49-7 victory could have a long-standing negative impact, but it most certainly did. 

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To recap what happened back in 2015: 

1. J.T. Barrett was installed as the new quarterback (again) after bedeviling Penn State a week earlier as part of a two-quarterback system including starter Cardale Jones*. 

2. That meant the end of trying to keep alive the formula of success from the national championship run of 2014, which was based more around the downfield passing game and power runs than the option game Barrett thrived at. 

3. The move made sense in the short term because at that time the offense was more productive with Barrett in the game than Jones, but it locked in a lower ceiling for that uber-talented team. 

4. Since then, Ohio State has spent a lot of time being able to run the plays that made the offense successful under Barrett while wishing it could include more of the things that better fit Jones. 

The move did not pay immediate dividends as the offense needed nearly a full quarter just to get on the board (with an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run) at Rutgers two years ago, but once they mixed in some quarterback runs it took off. 

The second and third quarters saw Barrett lead an onslaught by air and by land, though if it looked too good to be true, it was. 

The seeds of the loss to Michigan State were sewn that day in Piscataway, and those plants have borne fruit a few more times since with the same foibles showing up at Penn State last season, against at MSU and in the playoffs against Clemson. 

The issues still hadn’t been worked out when Oklahoma came to town this season.

(*That two quarterback system worked in part because it’s hard for teams to prepare for that much in one week. PSU coach James Franklin admitted as much after his team’s loss. 

Barrett excelled largely because he was running a small package of plays tailored to his strengths, and he was put in the game in fortuitous situations.)

Meyer’s move to Barrett full time for the 2015 Rutgers game looked like a Band-Aid then, and pretty much everything that's happened since has proven that to be true. 

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The Buckeyes found a formula that would work against teams like Rutgers, and ever since they've been trying to figure out how to build on it. 

Rolling over a Michigan team missing some key players up front and an even more injury-riddled Notre Dame defense to end that season gave the illusion things were on the right track, but they really weren’t.  

I don’t know if anyone, myself included, would have thought it would take more than a year to make real progress, but that’s how it has played out. 

Inexplicably, the Ohio State offensive braintrust has even cast aside effecitve parts of those plans to try to make the offense more robust, leading to catastrophes against the Tigers and Sooners. 

Of course, there is good news: the last two weeks the coaching staff seems to have begun figuring out how to meld what worked against the Scarlet Knights two years ago and what the Buckeyes need to do to beat real college football teams later in the season. 

They executed plays the last two weeks that might not have worked against air in the weeks before that. 

Now it is back to Piscataway, where they claim a soccer match was the first college football game. 

Fortunately for all of us, not everyone was content with that game, in which carrying the ball was not allowed. A decade or so of changes eventually led to something that more closely resembles what the Buckeyes and Scarlet Knights will do Saturday, changes that include carrying the ball, scrimmage play and alternating possessions. 

Ohio State hopes its offensive turnaround won’t take that long. 

The Buckeyes have taken some important steps in the process already. 

What do they have in store next? 

To borrow from a song strongly associated with a famous Jersey guy, perhaps the best is yet to come. 

Unlike the last time Ohio State went to Rutgers.