COLUMBUS, Ohio — The brightest red flag in Ohio State’s season made its appearance in the moments following the high point of the Buckeyes’ 2016 campaign.
Second-ranked Ohio State had just punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff on the heels of Curtis Samuel’s 15-yard touchdown run in the second overtime of a 30-27 victory over No. 3 Michigan. Late in the third quarter, the Buckeyes had trailed 17-7.
‘Was Urban Meyer ever worried?’ a reporter dare wondered.
“I don’t know,” Meyer said. “We won the game.”
For much of the season, Meyer had maintained a similar stance when it came to the questioning of an anemic passing attack that ultimately sputtered down the stretch. In its final three games, OSU averaged just 112.3 passing yards on a 50-percent completion rate and produced a single touchdown through the air.
Meyer, however, remained steadfast in his stance. As long as the Buckeyes won, there was no reason to complain about a lack of style points. The College Football Playoff selection committee apparently agreed with his line of thinking.
But after a devastating 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal on Saturday, Ohio State no longer has the shield of winning to hide behind. The Buckeyes passing attack was finally exposed.
Forget playoff-caliber. For much of the 2016 season, this offense wasn’t even Ohio State-caliber.
“Ohio State is not used to this. I’m not used to this, and we will not get used to this,” Meyer asserted after the bowl game. “That’s not going to happen again.”
Meyer has been in this situation before.
With a 61-6 record at Ohio State to his credit, even Meyer has become accustomed to taking his losses in stride. In his first five defeats, the Buckeyes lost by a combined 35 points — hardly a reason to shake up a program that has experienced such overwhelming success.
But at the end of the 2013 season, Ohio State found itself in a similar predicament as the one it does now. The reoccurring issues back then, however, came on the defensive side of the ball.
Ironically, that campaign also ended with a postseason loss to Clemson, a 40-35 defeat in an Orange Bowl which saw the Buckeyes defense surrender 576 total yards, 378 in the air.
Ohio State ranked 112th nationally in defending the pass that season. In his 2015 book, “Above the Line,” the Buckeyes head coach detailed contemplating coaching changes in the ensuing offseason.
“I was considering a couple of moves,” Meyer wrote. “I had been contacted by some big-name defensive coaches.”
Meyer ultimately opted to stay put, although co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers taking the head coaching job at James Madison allowed Meyer to bring on Chris Ash and Mike Vrabel’s departure for a job in the NFL led to the hiring of defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
As for retaining defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who took the most heat for the state of the Buckeyes’ defense at the time, Meyer explained: “What I needed to be clear about was that any changes would be motivated by the right reasons. Reacting to shrieking callers on sports radio is not the right reason.”
Only this time around, Meyer and local sports talk stations will likely be in agreement.
It doesn’t take a shock jock to see there’s something fundamentally broken with the Ohio State offense, particularly in the passing game. A year ago, the Buckeyes ranked 100th nationally in passing, while this season, they ranked 82nd, statistical discrepancies from the talent Meyer’s rosters have possessed.
Given the way Meyer has recruited and what this offense looked like when Tom Herman was the Buckeyes offensive coordinator from 2012-14, it’d be tough to blame their passing woes on their talent. And before the Fiesta Bowl had even ended, former OSU QB Cardale Jones took to Twitter to confirm as much.
Stop all these “JT trash” tweets, when I started last season & we struggled, it was “Cardale trash we want JT”it ain’t the QB?☕️?
— Cardale Jones (@Cardale7_) January 1, 2017
Meyer, too, seems aware of the systematic issues that have been present in his offense since Ed Warinner took over as offensive coordinator and Tim Beck was hired as quarterbacks coach/co-offensive coordinator in January 2015. As a result, an Ohio State offensive staff member — or members — could take the fall.
“I’m going to take a hard look at some things when we get back,” Meyer said. “Anytime you struggle a little bit, you always take a hard look.”
Given the results — or lack thereof — the Buckeyes passing game has produced the last two seasons, that might not be a bad thing. Such change, however, likely wouldn’t be possible without the embarrassing nature in which Ohio State lost its last game.
Had the Buckeyes beaten Clemson or even lost in a more-respectable manner, it would have been much easier to maintain the status quo. Success has a way of breeding complacency. Just look at the way Meyer and QB J.T. Barrett have defended their stagnant passing game in the past.
For Meyer to admit his offense has an issue, it took a loss — and a historical one at that. In a lot of ways, the Buckeyes’ offense is in the exact same spot its defensive counterpart was three years ago.
“In some regards,” Meyer answered when asked if the two situations are similar.
Only this time, Meyer could very well opt to make a move when it comes to his coaching staff.
And after that disaster in the desert, it’d be tough to argue such staff shakeup wouldn’t benefit the Buckeyes.