Ohio State using old-school, I-formation to improve red zone touchdown rate

Ohio State using old-school, I-formation to improve red zone touchdown rate

When Jim Tressel departed Ohio State following the 2010 season, so too, it seemed did the old-school philosophy of Ohio State football. While Luke Fickell continued to use some of Tressel’s offensive plans, which often fit better under the “three yards and a cloud of dust” shown than the way many teams were playing college football at that time, in 2011, any reminisce of traditional looks went out the window when Urban Meyer arrived a year later.

Meyer, who still loved power football, had developed his offense using spread sets during his time at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. He used this system, arguing his quarterbacks couldn’t line up under center for QB sneaks because they didn’t practice the exchanges, to great success during his seven seasons in Columbus.

Ryan Day, who came to the Buckeyes as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Meyer, has kept much of the spread formations while changing things to fit his offensive game plan. But on Saturday against Toledo, at least for one night, Day and the Scarlet and Gray went back to old-school football.

“We thought with the 100th year anniversary of the Horseshoe, it would be good to line up in the I (formation) and hand the ball to the fullback for a touchdown,” Day joked after a 77-21 win. “So we wanted to get that done this year.”

While the year and the celebrations of Ohio Stadium didn’t actually play a part in Ohio State’s decision to go back to classic principles, there were things about this season that led the Buckeyes to line up in the I-formation multiple already in 2022. First, the Scarlet and Gray struggled to run the ball in short-yardage situations a year ago, something the team promised to address this offseason, and second, the personnel available.

In 2021, Ohio State scored in the red zone 91.53 percent of the time, but much of that came from the leg of kicker Noah Ruggles. Putting it another way, the Buckeyes settled for field goals on 16 of their 59 red zone trips, only scoring touchdowns at a 64.41 percent clip.

While the Scarlet and Gray had an explosive offense last year that scored more points per game than anyone else in the country, Ohio State was No. 45 in the nation when it came to getting six points inside the 20-yard line.

“I think it was the emphasis more on trying to get the run game going because it gets really hard, even when we throw the ball so well,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said after the Toledo game. “And I know coach Day, coach (Brian) Hartline, coach (Corey) Dennis always work up the best red zone plan to throw the ball but those windows get tighter, those spaces get tighter. So your ability to run the ball in the red zone is when you really can be a better red zone (team) on offense. That was the emphasis of all offseason was just to be a little bit better in the run game and we’re building that way.”

Personnel-wise, the Buckeyes are deep at tight end and have three to four players at the position that deserve to get on the field. Cade Stover and Gee Scott Jr. were both talked up in the preseason and have each seen playing time early in the year. When Mitch Rossi elected to return for a sixth season, he gave the Scarlet and Gray a pure blocking tight end who Wilson believes will be an NFL fullback.

Even with the talent in the tight end room, the expectation was Ohio State would still spread the field with the team’s talented wide receivers. But early-season injuries to wideouts Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming and Kamryn Babb changed the plan a bit.

As the Buckeyes adjusted to life without three of their top pass-catching weapons in the first two games, they had to lean on the run game more – specifically in the second half against Notre Dame – and figure out ways to still score points while not having as many explosive weapons. Fortunately, they have a number of offensive minds with plenty of experience to draw on.

The Buckeyes brought in Cade Stover and Gee Scott Jr., as well as offensive lineman Josh Fryar, as tight ends in this I-formation play with Mitch Rossi at fullback.

“We’re trying to build those packages,” Day said. “I think you saw what Cade can do. You saw his versatility now. Firstly, you know just how tough he is and how physical he is at the line of scrimmage. But now you’re starting to see what he can be as a weapon and in the passing game. We actually missed him a couple of times in the endzone that were close. And then Gee Scott is really starting to grow for us as well. He’s become somebody that can do a lot of things. He’s an athletic tight end for us. So that gives us a little something. And then Mitch gives us a little bit of something as well. So that’s exciting. Not having Jaxon play, really the second half of the first game and really Game 2, not having Julian available, has allowed us to build some depth, but also look at a couple different packages, which hopefully pays off for us moving forward.”

While Saturday night wasn’t the first time the Scarlet and Gray have gone with a different look to utilize the tight ends’ blocking ability or Rossi as a fullback, it was certainly the most extensive.

Quarterback CJ Stroud went under center six times against the Rockets with Rossi and a running back behind him. At times, this look included both Stover and Scott, with an extra offensive lineman joining them at tight end in a jumbo package. Other times, receiver Emeka Egbuka lined up out wide, taking a tight end off the field.

Ohio State scored using these looks three times. The first came on running back TreVeyon Henderson‘s seven-yard score on the first possession, as he followed blocks from Rossi and guard donovan jackson into the end zone. The second followed two consecutive unsuccessful I-formation runs by freshman Dallan Hayden in the third quarter when the Buckeyes brought Stover in motion and then handed off to Rossi for the surprising one-yard scoring play.

The third touchdown from this new/old look was the most innovative, so to speak. After going play action from the I-formation, Stroud just missed a wide open Stover in the endzone for a touchdown. The Scarlet and Gray then lined Rossi up in the wing behind Stover and Scott, brought Egbuka in motion and handed off to him on a jet sweep.

Although the play was not perfectly blocked, Egbuka was able to fight his way into the endzone for a first quarter touchdown.

Day wanted to have multiple looks off the I formation package and Ohio State showed a number of different things from it against the Rockets.

“I think it’s important that when you put something in, it can’t just be one, because then what are you doing? And then are you building off of it moving forward? And so, you want to have a package when you’re putting something in,” the head coach explained. “And sometimes it works out really good, sometimes it doesn’t. And when it does, you build on it. And that’s the idea is that you’re trying to build something for down the road.”

Regardless of how they’ve done it, the Buckeyes have improved in the red zone so far in 2022. In 13 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, the Scarlet and Gray have 12 touchdowns, the third-best percentage in the country. Six of those have come on the ground, showing that Ohio State’s focus on red zone and short-yardage plays have, thus far, been successful.

The Buckeyes will face stiffer tests as the team begins Big Ten play this weekend. Better teams than Toledo will see how the Scarlet and Gray are operating in the red zone and make adjustments.

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But that just means the offensive minds at Ohio State will have to continue to get creative, taking advantage of the personnel they have, to find ways to continue to get the Buckeyes touchdowns in the red zone.

“We want to be creative the best we can down there,” Day said. “And you have those type of guys with those kinds of skill sets, they can do a lot of things. They can get physical in the run game and create conflict for some of the linebackers and safety run paths. But then also having the ability to get the ball on the perimeter, like you saw in that one play, and that’s a good job by the offensive staff, coming in today with different ideas on how to attack defenses.”

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