New faces make OSU offense 'vanilla' so far

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The math seemed simple enough, and from behind a podium in the Ohio State meeting room, Urban Meyer was effectively urging anybody within earshot not to overthink it.

Replacing a quarterback, even one as decorated and talented as Braxton Miller, is just one cog in the machine. There were four parts missing on the offensive line from last year’s well-oiled attack, and swapping out each of those pieces is every bit as important in keeping the engine running smoothly.

Maybe the formula isn’t balanced enough to suggest that replacing four offensive linemen is four times as challenging as finding a replacement at the most important position on the field. But the Buckeyes have made it abundantly clear after just one game without Miller which side of the equation is the bigger concern for a fresh-faced offense on a team that still has playoff aspirations.

“We went into it very vanilla last week,” Meyer said. “I think [quarterback J.T.] Barrett is part of it, but the offensive line is the other big part of it.

“What can those guys do and what can they do well? We’re expecting them in the next couple of weeks to be able to do it all well. It’s not just J.T. When we say expand the playbook, it’s for J.T. and it’s for the offensive line.”

The Buckeyes had almost no game experience to draw on with either position group last weekend against Navy, and that uncertainty was obvious during a first half that didn’t include an offensive touchdown and put them on upset alert. The natural reaction was to point to Miller’s absence, but Meyer had never hesitated in the past to shift the attention to the role his four senior starters up front played while the star quarterback was winning consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards.

Heading into the opener against the Midshipmen, Meyer still hadn’t officially settled on replacements at two of those vacant spots on the line, leaving battles at guard and center that had started back in March unsettled nearly all the way up to kickoff. It also didn’t help that Ohio State no longer had Carlos Hyde to handle the workload at running back and top receiver Philly Brown had graduated as well, which in some ways made it likely all along that it would take some time for the spread attack to resume the record-setting onslaught Meyer had led over the last two seasons with the program.

Much of the scrutiny was focused on Barrett and the redshirt freshman’s ability to pick up where Miller left off before injuring his shoulder for the second time this year. But with new evidence thanks to a debut for Barrett that included 12 completions in 15 attempts for 226 yards and two touchdowns now available to help make his case, Meyer’s basic math should be even easier to understand as the Buckeyes try to figure out the best way forward with so many new starters in the lineup -- not just the one at quarterback.

“Yeah, you know, we’re not the same offense as we were last year,” left guard Pat Elflein said. “We had different guys. We’re still trying to figure out who we are and just play as hard as we can, and then we’ll go from there.

“We had a bunch of guys who hadn’t started before out there. So just getting the first game out of the way, they’ll be more comfortable there and I think we’ll play a lot better. I’m not worried about it all.”

The concerns haven’t entirely disappeared for Ohio State after one week, and Meyer stressed the importance of getting “much better fast” up front with a significant test coming Saturday at home against Virginia Tech.

But the Buckeyes don’t necessarily just have to rely on the old coaching formula that calls for exponential improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 at the start of a season. With three touchdown drives after intermission following that rocky first half against Navy, all of those new cogs seemed to at least be on the way to fitting into the Ohio State machine.

“The second half we played pretty good,” Meyer said. “But pretty good is not what we expect. You play pretty good this week, you won't win that game.

“But once those groups come together, we’ll continue to expand [the playbook]. I'm expecting that to happen rather quickly -- it better or we won't win this game.”

There’s nothing too complicated about that message, either.