COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Curtis Samuel Twitter Tracker started in the middle of the first quarter on Saturday.
So forth and so on, all the way until 23 plays had passed until the Ohio State H-back finally received his first touch of the game, a 15-yard reception for a first down. Nine more touches would follow — seemingly far too few in a closely contested game — in what was ultimately a 24-21 Buckeyes loss to Penn State.
In a night full of questionable play-calling, Urban Meyer’s use of Samuel — or lack thereof — stood out as perhaps Ohio State’s biggest blunder. After all, this is the head coach who makes sure his spread offense prominently features his most explosive playmakers.
And yet there was Samuel, who ranked ninth in the nation in yards from scrimmage entering the Penn State game, receiving his second-fewest touches this season. The junior H-back made the most of his opportunities, tallying 139 yards on a season-high 13.9 yards per touch, including a 74-yard touchdown run.
Meyer conceded afterward the Buckeyes “probably gotta get him more than that.”
So, what happened?
According to Meyer, Penn State programmed specific defensive plays to dissuade Ohio State from featuring Samuel, but the reduction in his role on Saturday followed a recent trend. After averaging 16 touches per game in the Buckeyes’ first four outings, Samuel has recorded an average of 12.3 touches in the past three weeks — including a season-low 9 touches against Indiana. Against the Hoosiers, it took Ohio State 25 plays to initially get him the ball.
An easy solution would be to hand the running back/wide receiver hybrid player the ball, but Meyer insists it’s not that simple.
“Not to get too complicated, but there’s certain pressures that some of those plays aren’t good,” Meyer said. “So you check out of it.”
What happened to the head coach who used to keep a list of his best offensive players, along with a number of touches he’d like each one to receive? Surely, Samuel would be at the top of Meyer’s list this season, considering he’s already tallied 998 yards (527 rushing, 471 receiving) seven games into the 2016 campaign.
That is, of course, assuming such a list still exists.
“I’m kind of moving away from that,” Meyer said on Monday, “because that disrupts the flow of a game a little bit.”
That may sound like a rationalization Meyer made with himself in the 36 hours that followed Ohio State’s first loss of the season. J.T. Barrett shared a similar sentiment minutes after the game. Per the Ohio State quarterback, it can do more harm than good to emphasize a particular player — especially one the opposing defense already has made a top priority.
“We’re going to run our plays, and if Curtis happens to get the ball, then Curtis happens to get the ball,” Barrett said. “Our offense runs very well when that happens. We’re not going to start going backward into ‘this person has to get the ball, that person has to get the ball’ because then you’re just predictable. That’s not how we play. That’s not good football.”
At first glance, that sounds like a promising endorsement of the OSU offense. According to Barrett, there’s simply too much talent elsewhere — take running back Mike Weber and H-back Dontre Wilson, for example — to be solely dependent on one offensive target. In past years, the Buckeyes relied on Braxton Miller and Ezekiel Elliott. If the Ohio State offense is going to reach its potential, it’s not going to be by force feeding Samuel the ball against a defense prepared for just that.
And yet, it’d be hard to say the Buckeyes offense has reached its potential in the last three weeks, either, with its top weapon having become a lesser part of the plan.
Plus, even Meyer conceded, “early in the game I understood we played a bunch of plays before he got it. That shouldn’t happen.”
So, what can Ohio State do?
A big part of the solution could come with the Buckeyes fixing their faulty passing attack. The offense recently has struggled because of the inconsistent play of receivers, issues in pass protection and even Barrett himself. Ideally, Samuel would be used more as a receiver than as a running back, allowing the 212-pound Weber to take on the heavier workload between the tackles.
If Ohio State’s passing game is going to get on track, it likely will coincide with an increase in touches for Samuel. He has 37 receptions this season and has caught 18 more passes than anyone else on the roster.
But still, 2 handoffs are not nearly enough — not for a player of Samuel’s ability, even if it’s a boom-or-bust proposition as it was on Saturday. One carry went for 74 yards, and the other went for negative-3. Meyer admitted on the Big Ten coaches teleconference on Wednesday there are ways for Ohio State to counter opposing defense’s efforts to neutralize the versatility of a player like Samuel.
“That is a part of it — what we’re seeing and the ability to adjust and adapt,” Meyer said.
If the Buckeyes don’t, it won’t take long for the Twitter Tracker to start again.