Yesterday’s game between Ohio State and Illinois was a good example of why Big Ten football teams need to be able to execute simple running plays if they want to be successful. For much of the game the rain was coming down in sheets, which put a premium on being able to move the ball on the ground. Ohio State was able to do so; Illinois wasn’t. Ohio State took a commanding lead, Illinois made mistakes trying to catch up, and Ohio State pulled away to a convincing 30-0 win.
I know many national sports fans find Big Ten football boring because the offenses are so run-oriented. (Maybe if I hadn’t been born and raised on Big Ten football I would, too.) I think such fans simply don’t appreciate that those offenses are well-suited to the prevailing weather conditions in the upper Midwest. In every season, Big Ten teams will play several games in the rain, sleet, and snow, when hands and footballs are cold and wet. Those conditions pose enormous challenges to offenses that rely heavily on glitzy ball-handling or run-and-shoot passing schemes to move the ball. Teams that can move the ball up the middle and rack up first downs when the defense knows that a run is coming are the teams that will be contending for the Big Ten conference title at season’s end. And the focus for every program should be to contend for the conference championship — not to impress ESPN commentators by piling up points during the warm, dry second week of the season only to have your offense fall apart in a blizzard of interceptions and fumbles and dropped passes when the conditions turn cold and wet.
Woody Hayes called this kind of up-the-gut run-oriented offense “grinding some meat.” In my view, Ohio State’s ability to “grind some meat,” particularly during the series in the first half when Brandon Saine got the ball repeatedly in downpour conditions, was the single most encouraging thing about yesterday’s game. There is a special beauty in a well-schooled offensive line getting a push in the trenches and opening holes that skilled running backs exploit by running with vision and power, fighting for every yard. I appreciate it; I don’t particularly care if talking heads behind a desk in Bristol, Connecticut can’t (or won’t). If Ohio State can continue to successfully “grind some meat” when it must do so, it will have a good season.
Some other observations on yesterday’s game:
The Ohio State defensive line looks strong, fast, and deep. They seemed to wear Illinois down during the second half and really disrupted Illinois’ offensive scheme. This is a good thing, because I continue to have unanswered questions about Ohio State’s defensive backfield. If Ohio State plays a team this year that has an offensive line capable of giving its quarterback sufficient time to throw, Ohio State might be in trouble.
Boom Herron and Brandon Saine are both good, tough runners. If they can avoid getting injured — which is always the question for good, tough, fight-for-every yard runners — they will give Ohio State a very effective one-two punch this season.
Everyone forgets that Terrelle Pryor is just a sophomore, but sometimes he plays like it. He needs to understand that not every play must gain 30 yards to be successful; a six-yard gain can be a tremendous positive under the right circumstances and should be taken as such. He also seems to be a bit more adventurous with his passes this year. Last year he often waited to throw until receivers were wide open, but this year he has made some throws where he really tried to fit the ball through small openings in the defense. On one play in particular, where Pryor was running to his right and tried to throw back to the middle, he was lucky that his throw wasn’t picked off. Figuring out the best decision under such circumstances is part of the maturation process for a quarterback, and Pryor is still a work in progress in that regard.
Even within a run-oriented offense, there is room for innovation and surprise. Ohio State introduced a tight end blocking approach yesterday that was tremendously successful and also gave its fullback a bit more to do in the offense. Those little wrinkles may pay dividends in the future, when defensive coordinators for opponents must decide how to defend against the Ohio State offense.