COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State had just come off its biggest victory of the 2016 campaign, an emotional overtime win over Wisconsin in a top-10 battle between the Buckeyes and Badgers.
Ohio State’s players and coaches had barely been back in Columbus for a full 24 hours by the time Urban Meyer took the podium for his Monday morning news conference. So you’ll have to excuse the fifth-year Buckeyes head coach for appearing ornery when the first question included what he perceived as an insult to his players.
“Square wheel?” Meyer responded when a reporter used that precise metaphor to describe Ohio State’s passing attack over the past two games. “I never heard the (term) ‘square wheel.’ I take offense to that. Guys work too hard around here for a ‘square wheel’ comment. It’s a work in progress with a bunch of young receivers, and they have to continue to work at it.”
Still, Meyer conceded, “We just need to play a little better.”
It’s no secret the Ohio State passing game hasn’t played to its potential in the past two weeks, with quarterback J.T. Barrett completing just 9 of his 21 pass attempts for 93 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 38-17 win over Indiana a week ago. Against Wisconsin, Barrett’s final stat line — 17-for-29, 226 yards, one touchdown and one interception — looked like a step in the right direction, but his first-half numbers against the Badgers told a different tale.
As Ohio State headed to the locker room trailing the Badgers by 10 points, Barrett had completed just 6 of his 14 attempts for 81 yards. The comeback victory and Barrett’s big second half may still be what’s fresh in everyone’s mind, but the Buckeyes have failed to move the ball through the air on a consistent basis in six of their last eight quarters.
“Timing,” Barrett answered when asked on Monday what Ohio State’s passing attack needs to get better at. “At times, maybe I was ready to throw (and) the receivers aren’t quite open or maybe I need to slow down my drop so they can take a little longer. Timing-wise, that’s the biggest thing when you throw deeper passes down the field. You have to have the timing.”
It makes sense.
Although Barrett is essentially in his third season as the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback, he’s spent the better part of this season targeting a largely inexperienced receiving corps. Add a talented secondary like Wisconsin’s — or even Indiana’s, for that matter — and you wind up with numbers like these for Ohio State’s wide receivers in the past two games:
Even the Buckeyes’ leading receiver, Curtis Samuel, has struggled to remain a consistent downfield target. A week after failing to haul in a pass against the Hoosiers, the OSU H-back caught six passes for 58 yards against the Badgers — more than four yards fewer than his per catch average of 13.9 yards.
On Monday, Meyer didn’t deny that his team’s wideouts struggled to obtain the necessary separation against Wisconsin.
“We did not beat the defenders,” Meyer said. “It’s a work in progress with a bunch of young receivers and they have to continue to work at it.”
But as the second half in Madison showed, the potential is there.
Three of Noah Brown’s four receptions came after halftime, as did both of Parris Campbell’s catches. Barrett sustained second-half drives with successful throws to James Clark and K.J. Hill, and found H-back Dontre Wilson downfield for a 43-yard pass on the game-tying drive.
If the previous six quarters had created a cause for concern, then Saturday’s second half could be viewed as a step in the right direction.
“We have a great confidence in what we can do as a receiving corps,” said Brown, whose 7-yard touchdown catch in overtime served as Saturday’s game-winner. “We just try to stay patient. We wear a lot of teams down over the course of a game, so we saw that start to open up a little bit in the second half.”
Ohio State’s passing attack hasn’t been great, but it’s been good enough. That strategy may not be ideal, but without an opponent whose defense ranks as highly as Wisconsin’s No. 12 unit left on the Buckeyes’ schedule until their regular season finale with No. 1 Michigan, it may suffice.
Square wheel? No, the Buckeyes passing game has been more like a flat tire. You can get by with one, but sooner or later, you’re going to need to get it fixed.
If the second half on Saturday is any indication, Meyer may have already diagnosed what his offense needs to do in order to add a little more air.